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Editorial: Sound sewer idea among the fury

The boiler room of the Cedar Creek Water

The boiler room of the Cedar Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in Wantagh. (May 9, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Jessica Rotkiewicz

Finally, amid the flurry of ideas Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is tossing out for sewers, comes a fairly good one. It's just too bad he told a bunch of potential investors about it before he mentioned it to ratepayers.

A brochure Mangano circulated to attract a $750 million investment noted that the county's sewer billing may go from property-value based charges to those based, at least in part, on use. That's mostly a smart idea.

For one thing, it would make it easier for the county to move forward with the sewer fee it wants to impose on most nonprofits. So far, Mangano has been stymied by the courts because he planned to charge these organizations a use fee, and he can't impose a different billing method on nonprofits than he does on property owners. Beyond that, though, the change would mean metering people's sewer usage, and metering encourages conservation. Paying for what you use is also fairer than a blanket assessment: Putting in a new sink or bathroom shouldn't hike your sewer bill, but the additional water you use in them should.

One disadvantage of the change for those who itemize deductions -- and many do because of Nassau's high property taxes -- would be that sewer fees are not deductible. For that reason alone, the plan is likely to be a political loser. Worse, Mangano and his staff have been secretive about the change and are probably wrong about its effect. Deputy County Executive Rob Walker said, "Residents would see no difference in their bills," but how could that be? The costs would shift to the big consumers and away from the water thrifty.

But the worst part of this generally good metering idea is that it's being presented as a cog in a larger, seemingly unworkable plan. Mangano wants $750 million from an investor to plug the county's financial hole, and in return he'll give that investor, and operator United Water, the county's sewer revenue for 50 years. Whether you call the $750 million a loan, a lease or privatization, all that money -- plus the interest and the operating costs of the system itself -- is going to be paid by Nassau residents. And reassurances that sewer bills will be frozen until 2015, then go up at only the rate of inflation for 50 years, aren't reassuring anyone, particularly with the recent revelation that ratepayers could face special "surcharges" under the deal for unexpected capital repairs.

All this confusion and manipulation has spurred a movement, led by the Nassau County Coalition of Civic Associations, to put the proposed sewer deal on the ballot as a referendum this November. That would be very hard to accomplish. Additionally, sewer policy is the kind of complicated issue we elect officials to become expert in, and make good decisions about. It's a sign of our wavering trust in their ability to do so that a referendum on the issue has support.

It's almost certain a private operator could do a better job of running the day-to-day operations of Nassau's sewers than the county does. A metering plan that charges fair fees, encourages conservation and allows the county to charge nonprofits for the service would be a big move forward. But entangling these good ideas with a potential $750 million boondoggle is likely to flush any possible improvements.