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Suffolk sewer merger plan has better odds

Aerial views of the Bergen Point Sewage Plant

Aerial views of the Bergen Point Sewage Plant in West Babylon. (July 25, 2008) Credit: Newsday/Daniel Goodrich

A new move to merge Suffolk County's sewer districts with its independent water authority may succeed where past efforts failed because of the possibility of bipartisan support in the county legislature, political experts and county officials said.

Others said the plan could meet resistance in the State Legislature, which would have to agree to consolidation.

Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon) and Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) have been pushing for consolidation for several years.

"Maybe today's politics will get through the red tape that yesterday's politics couldn't get through," Cilmi said.

But Tom Shanahan, an Albany lobbyist who once represented the Suffolk County Water Authority, said the measure could meet resistance in the Republican-majority State Senate over the issue of the SCWA taking over combined debt of more than $400 million from the 21 separate sewer districts.

"My expectation is that the State Senate is going to take a good hard look on this," Shanahan said.

In 1991, County Executive Patrick Halpin, a Democrat, proposed a merger, but ran into opposition from Republicans, including SCWA chairman Michael LoGrande. The proposal was eventually voted down by the Republican majority legislature. Some GOP legislators questioned the appointment process for the consolidated board, which the lawmakers said favored Democrats.

Another merger pitched in 1992 by Republican County Executive Robert Gaffney also failed to gain support.

Halpin, executive vice president for external affairs of the Institute for Student Achievement in Carle Place, which works to improve underperforming public high schools, said that now "you have Democrats and Republicans working together to raise this issue.

"Here you have a new county executive who is also open to the idea," said Halpin, also secretary to the SCWA board. "The devil is in the details, but we're at a point where this will now be carefully examined."

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who proposed the merger this week, said a joint water and sewer authority could more easily make improvements to protect water quality, and speed up new projects necessary for commercial and residential development. The administration also says the deal could relieve the county of responsibility for the sewer authorities' $427 million in debt.

LoGrande, who has served as the authority's chairman for more than 20 years, said he still opposes a merger because he questions whether savings will materialize.

Nonetheless, "I see this as more of a bipartisan effort," LoGrande said. "Maybe that makes a difference from years ago."

With Sarah Crichton

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