Democrats rally outside the Suffolk County Legislature building on Tuesday...

Democrats rally outside the Suffolk County Legislature building on Tuesday in favor of a plan to fund wastewater treatment through a sales tax increase.  Credit: Rick Kopstein

A proposal to raise the Suffolk County sales tax to fund a sweeping expansion of sewers and high-tech wastewater treatment won't be on the November ballot after the Republican-controlled Suffolk County Legislature failed to advance the measure Tuesday.

The legislature on Tuesday considered two measures that were key to the proposed expansion: one to consolidate the county’s 27 sewer districts and another to fund wastewater treatment in Suffolk through a .125% sales tax increase.

The Republican-controlled legislature voted 10-7 along party lines, with Legis. Jim Mazzarella (R-Moriches) absent, to recess public hearings on the countywide sewer district and the sales tax hike, preventing them from moving forward.

The proposed sales tax increase, which would require voter approval, would fund sewers and grants for septic upgrades for individual property owners.

The legislature has until Aug. 4 to approve the sales tax increase for it to be on the ballot in the November general election, but the meeting Tuesday was the last the legislature will hold until September. 

Nearly 75% of Suffolk properties are served by outdated septic systems that do not remove nitrogen from wastewater, according to county officials. Expanding wastewater treatment was a key goal of the administration of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, who declared nitrogen "public enemy number 1" in 2014.

"Families and communities across Suffolk County know how critical clean water is to our future so we will continue to work with all stakeholders to get this issue before the voters," a Bellone spokeswoman said in a statement.

Republicans have criticized language in the state legislation that authorized the sewer expansion for allotting most of the money raised through the sales tax for individual high-tech septic systems, rather than sewer construction. They have said they will seek changes in the state legislation, although advocates said it is not certain if they can get another bill passed in Albany.

The legislature’s presiding officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said the governing body could reconsider the issue once changes are made.

“I believe that [sewers] would not only have the biggest impact on the environment, but also the biggest impact of putting people to work,” he said. “I believe that we can find a solution.”

More than 40 people signed up to speak Tuesday on the wastewater proposals, primarily in favor. Earlier, Democratic candidates for county and town offices rallied outside the legislative chamber, urging lawmakers to pass the measures. 

Backers of the initiative said GOP lawmakers were trying to stall the sewer expansion plan for political reasons in a year all 18 legislative seats are up for election, an assertion McCaffrey denied.

“We see you putting party politics ahead of our health, our families and our economy,” Cathy McConnell, a nature documentary filmmaker from West Islip, testified Tuesday. “By refusing to allow us to vote on this matter, you’re energizing us to vote you out of office.”

A handful of speakers questioned the need for the plan and criticized the sales tax increase including John Bugler of Oakdale who said it would create a "blitzkrieg" in spending.

Democrats, environmentalists and union leaders have rallied behind the sales tax initiative, saying it is needed to advance Suffolk’s Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, a 50-year, $4 billion effort to reverse nitrogen pollution in local waterways. Legislators unanimously adopted that plan in 2020.

“I'm here today to tell you that the plan that you're considering right here is based on the best available science,” Christopher Gobler, professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, told lawmakers at the hearing.

“This referendum in front of you today will set the course for protecting ecosystems, human health and economy in Suffolk County for generations to come,” Gobler said.

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