The Suffolk Legislature Tuesday night added $21 million to the 2013 capital budget to fund a sewer plant for the ambitious Ronkonkoma Hub project, after backers vowed that taxpayers would not have to foot the bill for the project.
Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko, a Democrat, and Islip Supervisor Tom Croci, a Republican, said the funding is a "linchpin" so hub developer TRITEC Real Estate Corp. Inc. can get financing to buy the 50 acres on which an 880-unit housing project will be built. Also planned is 100,000 to 200,000 square feet of commercial space.
"It's a historic moment for Suffolk County," Lesko said. "It will mark the moment when the project is shovel-ready."
While the county would budget for the project, Lesko emphasized the county would not have to pay the debt on bonds that would be issued. He said that residents and landlords of commercial properties, as part of a sewer district, would pay the $1 million annual debt-service cost for the sewer plant, minus any state or federal grants that might be obtained.
"I don't care who services the debt, as long as it's not the county," said Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip). However, he also warned later that the county needs to be wary of "bumps in the road" like the towns' last-minute funding request, noting that past projects like the Shoreham nuclear plant and the Southwest Sewer District became mired in huge cost overruns.
Former lawmaker Brian Beedenbender, now Lesko's chief of staff, said full funding is needed because investors would otherwise be apprehensive about investing in a project that relies on uncertain future legislative votes, or amendments that would require offsetting cuts from other projects.
"This is a budget amendment to grow the economy of Suffolk County," said Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), deputy presiding officer, noting that the supervisors touted the project because it would bring in $350 million in private investment, 1,000 construction jobs and 2,000 permanent jobs.
While Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset), the minority leader, earlier questioned whether a sewer district, design and construction could move so fast, he said he was unaware that the public works department this week will complete maps for a new sewer district and bids have already been returned from contractors seeking design work.
Lesko said, "We're being aggressive with the time line, but we're not being unrealistic."
During the debate, Legis. Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon) worried whether funding for the project could in any way jeopardize the county's $156 million sewer stabilization fund, aimed at limiting annual sewer district tax increases to 3 percent.
Gail Vizzini, director of budget review, acknowledged there are "a lot of unanswered questions," which D'Amaro called "a little disconcerting."
Earlier in the day, town officials said a brand-new sewer plant would not need the kind of subsidies that many of Suffolk's two dozen county sewer districts require.
Croci said 100,000 gallons of the sewer plant's daily 500,000-gallon capacity will be shared with Islip, which can hook up Long Island MacArthur Airport, the foreign trade zone and others on a contract basis, bringing in revenue.
"We are all painfully aware that we need economic development in Suffolk County and sewers are the key," he said.
Legislators also restored several key community college projects that County Executive Steve Bellone had cut from his proposed capital program, including a $16.75 million health and sports complex on the college's east end campus and $3.1 million for renovation to a classroom building on the Selden campus. The restoration preserves the college's chances to get 50 percent state aid for the project, but lawmakers also pushed back the funding from 2013 to 2014, in light of the county's fiscal woes.