Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone recently proposed that the county's sewer districts should explore merging with the Suffolk County Water Authority. Last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo suggested the Long Island Power Authority should be restructured. Earlier this year, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano attempted to privatize the sewer districts in Nassau. All three leaders should be commended for exploring ways to deliver vital public utility services more efficiently and economically.
But perhaps they should consider something even bolder and examine if it makes sense to merge all these public utilities into one entity: the Long Island Power and Water Authority.
Take the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, the largest municipal water and power utility in the nation. It could be a model for a new, more efficient consolidated utility on Long Island. It delivers water and electricity to 3.8 million residents and businesses -- more than we have here in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The utility's operations are financed solely by the sale of water and electric services, and no tax support is required. Similar models of successful public power and water utilities can be seen at Santee Cooper in South Carolina and the Salt River Project in Phoenix, among others.
Think about the synergies a merger could bring. All these utilities have meter readers, billing and collection personnel, right-of-way agents for utility equipment, and call centers for service matters. Why couldn't the same meter reader come to your house and read your water, sewage and electric meters? In addition, the single largest costs outside of personnel for water and sewer districts are energy costs -- and lowering those will help stabilize rates.
The public-private partnership objectives of Mangano, Bellone and Cuomo could be achieved if the services for this new entity were contracted out to private operators, much the way the Long Island Power Authority contracts out its services with National Grid (and soon will to the Public Service Enterprise Group of New Jersey, or PSEG).
Government-owned and corporate-operated service delivery models do work -- as is proved by the federal government, which allows Lockheed Martin to run some of the country's military bases. Most of the employees for a new, combined water and power authority wouldn't have to be public employees, and thus would not add to the unsustainable public pension and public health benefit crisis.
Finally, this new authority could be overseen by Nassau and Suffolk counties, with appointments to a board made by the county executives and confirmed by the county legislatures, bringing local -- rather than state -- control to these vital services. That's how it's done in other parts of the country.
The need to consolidate and reduce overlapping levels of government is a constant refrain on Long Island. If the Island were being designed today, we would never create more than 50 water districts and 30 sewer districts.
It's about time we managed our ground water as a regional resource that doesn't acknowledge municipal boundaries or benefit from fragmented municipal ownership. The provision of safe and clean drinking water and ample and clean energy supplies are the lifeline of our regional economy -- and should be looked at as public resources and economic development tools. Prudent water and energy-resource management for the 21st century demands no less.
So while the other options are being explored, let's gather the facts to see if coordinating the provision of all these services makes sense and lowers rates.