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Suffolk County pushes water quality protection fee

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, center, with representatives

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, center, with representatives from a coalition promoting a proposal that would allow county residents to vote on whether to establish a dedicated funding source to expand clean water infrastructure on Monday, April 25, 2016, in Yaphank. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Suffolk officials, environmentalists and a coalition of labor, construction and other groups gathered in Yaphank Monday in support of County Executive Steve Bellone’s call to put a referendum on the November ballot on whether to add a surcharge to water bills to support nitrogen-removal efforts.

The county is seeking state legislation to allow voters to decide whether they want to create a water quality protection fee of $1 per 1,000 gallons of water used.

But Robert Caroppoli, communications director for state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), said the majority leader was “unequivocally opposed to it and said that it was D.O.A.”

Peter Scully, deputy county executive for administration and the main player behind the plan, had no comment regarding Flanagan’s position.

The county estimated a family of four would end up paying an extra $73 per year, with that number based on an estimated use of 50 gallons of water per day per person.

But other estimates for water usage abound — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates a family uses 300 gallons per day. And the Suffolk County Water Authority, the county’s largest public-water supplier, estimates water usage for a residence at 126,000 gallons per year. That would make the surcharge $126 per year.

Scully said homeowners could calculate their estimated surcharge based on their own water needs.

“This is really a transparent process, since any Long Island resident can simply utilize their water bill to determine what they actually use,” he said. “Folks can see clearly, based on their own water bill, what the implication of the water quality protection fee would be.”

He also said the water authority rate is $1.81 per 1,000 gallons — much lower than the national average, which the county said was $5.25 per 1,000 gallons.

“There is room on top of the very low water rates we pay,” he said.

Bellone touted the plan, surrounded by supporters, at a Monday afternoon news conference at Southaven County Park.

“Are we going to be a place that protects water quality or not?” Bellone, a Democrat, asked the crowd. “That is the question before us. Right now, that question is in the hands of politicians. I’m much more comfortable putting the question in the hands of the people.”

About 360,000 homes in Suffolk County are on septic systems and cesspools. Those systems, which dispose of waste but don’t remove nitrogen, are responsible for about 70 percent of the nitrogen pollution in the area’s surface water, according to the county.

Excess nitrogen causes harmful algal blooms, decreased oxygen levels and other negative effects in Long Island’s waterways.

Bellone, who has declared nitrogen “public water enemy No. 1,” is backing the referendum as a way to implement recommendations in the county’s Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, first released in 1987 and updated last year.

If the measure goes to the ballot and voters approve it, the fee would begin to be collected in 2018.

The money would go into a water quality protection fund, which would be used to help homeowners upgrade aging cesspools, connect homes to sewers, help municipalities with wastewater needs, and other measures.

“This is not a countywide sewer tax — this is a user fee,” said Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor). “If you conserve water, you are going to pay less. That is important.”

But several Suffolk County legislators criticized the plan — including Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) and Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore).

“We already ask our taxpayers to pay for water quality through their quarter-cent sales tax,” Cilmi said. “To ask our taxpayers to sacrifice any more money than they’re already sacrificing is ignorant of the challenges that our taxpayers face.”

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