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Opinion

Editorial: Don't rush into Suffolk water-sewer merger

Tim McKell, a Control Center Operator, monitors water

Tim McKell, a Control Center Operator, monitors water pressure, levels and troubleshoots at the Suffolk County Water Authority. Credit: Sally Morrow, 2008

On the surface, it makes a lot of sense: Put one agency in charge of both the sewers and the drinking water in Suffolk County. It works well elsewhere in the state and the nation, and it advances important goals: protection of our precious water, regionalism and consolidation of governmental units in a place that has too many.

But let's move cautiously. This idea has been around a while, and there's no immediate need to rush through anything that's not thoroughly examined. Oh, and merging sewer and water into one countywide agency will require Albany action. It will take some time to carefully draft and pass the needed legislation.

County Executive Steve Bellone and the leadership of the Suffolk County Water Authority, which already provides high-quality drinking water to 1.2 million county residents, are exploring whether the authority should control sewers, too. The authority was once riddled with patronage employees, and the party leader who ran it profited from insider knowledge of the agency's plans, then lost his job over that revelation by Newsday. There are still some patronage employees, but on the whole, the agency is far more professional, has first-class laboratories to test water quality, and enjoys consistently high ratings from its customers.

This page has supported its expansion, to reduce the number of small water providers within the county -- which is already part of its mission -- and even to serve the Village of Farmingdale in Nassau County. But discussions now going on between the authority and Bellone's staff would go a major step further: putting the agency in charge of the 21 county-run sewer districts, including the Southwest Sewer District.

Bellone's interest is primarily economic development, a core goal of his administration. It's axiomatic that economic development in Suffolk requires sewer expansion, to protect our sole-source aquifer from the effects of the increased density. But the county is only about 30 percent sewered. It is possible -- but far from certain -- that consolidating the 21 districts into the authority would make it easier to expand sewering. The authority has grown its customer base over the years, as it should, which gives it useful expansion experience. But experience isn't enough. Sewer expansion also requires funding, but it's still unclear whether this consolidation, which should save money on economies of scale, will also find a source of new dollars to build more sewers.

Then there's the districts' debt. Clearing that off the books would lower the county's overall debt, and the county could also get recurring revenue from the sale of the districts to the authority. But both entities must make sure that it doesn't increase water rates for the authority's customers.

Other issues include governance. The legislature alone appoints the members of the water authority's board, but Bellone will likely want some level of input into the newly expanded agency, so he can guide its impact on economic development. It could be tricky asking the legislature to cede some of its control of the authority to Bellone.

Despite the complexities, giving one agency control over extracting pure water from the ground and ensuring the quality of the wastewater going into the ground is a desirable goal. But first, drill down deep and make sure the idea will really work for everyone.

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