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Suffolk sewer plant inspection plan offered

Waste water in the final clarifier tanks at

Waste water in the final clarifier tanks at the Bergen Point Treatment Plant in West Babylon. (Oct. 19, 2006) Credit: Newsday Michael E. Ach

Suffolk health officials Tuesday laid out to county lawmakers a plan to inspect 192 private sewer plants with fewer staff by concentrating on what they termed "high-risk" operations.

Deputy Health Commissioner Barry Paul told lawmakers the state Department of Environmental Conservation has verbally agreed to the county's new plan after the state agency refused to take over inspections or provide the county with more money to do the work.

County Executive Steve Bellone earlier this year included six sewer staffers among the 230 layoffs amid the county fiscal crisis and proposed that the state take over inspections.

The health department presentation led lawmakers to table a resolution, sponsored by Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches), to restore the jobs to help ensure the county's underground drinking water supply.

In other action Tuesday, the legislature confirmed the appointment of Edward Webber as Suffolk police commissioner by unanimous vote. Lawmakers also appointed Democrats Karen Kerr of Centerport and Adam Halpern of Hauppauge to fill district court judge vacancies. Both are on the November ballot.

Walter Hilbert, chief of wastewater management, said the new sewer plan would have inspections for all 192 plants at least twice a year and quarterly inspections for the 55 plants currently listed as "high risk" for violations or other problems.

He said two inspector jobs had been restored using funds from the county's quarter-cent sales tax from the county's pine barrens program, and a third staffer shifted from other duties.

Hilbert said Suffolk for the past two decades has inspected all of its private plants quarterly, far more often than the rest of the state, as well as New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

But Romaine called the tabling "a stinky vote which could have stinky repercussions for the water supply." He added that he will seek an "up-or-down vote" on his proposal at next month's legislative meeting.

However, Legis. Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon) said efforts to concentrate inspections on sewer plants with the most problems "makes a lot of sense and makes the inspection system more efficient."

But even some supporters of tabling had qualms. "The question here is whether we are cutting back to make government more efficient or are we cutting corners," said Legis. William Spencer (D-Huntington). "We can't afford to get it wrong in dealing with the aquifer . . . I'm very conflicted about this."

Lawmakers also approved a resolution that would set up a separate line on town property tax bills allocating the cost for Suffolk students who attend in-state community colleges outside the county.

Bellone aide Ben Zwirn said the charge will distribute the cost more fairly to towns where the most students attending schools outside Suffolk reside, without making the charge part of the town tax levy.

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