The lack of sewers in Suffolk County remains a serious obstacle both to the preservation of our drinking water and bays and to the development of our downtowns. So, there's something to be said for County Executive Steve Levy's proposal for funding sewer expansion. But sewer funding has a long, complex history in Suffolk. The county legislature should not enact this plan without closely scrutinizing all its elements and improving it.
To begin with, there's no doubt about the need. More than 70 percent of dwellings in Suffolk are not connected to sewer systems. They rely on cesspools and septic tanks, fairly primitive ways of disposing of bathroom waste. Seeping into the groundwater, those wastes threaten the long-term quality of our drinking water and our bays, which are central to tourism, fishing and the Long Island way of life.
There are two ways to solve the problem: Add a lot more sewers and upgrade cesspools and septic tanks. The obstacle is money.
When Suffolk County built the Southwest Sewer District for southern Babylon and Islip in the 1970s, 87.5 percent of the funding was state and federal. Those sources have significantly dried up, and today the county would have to bear most of the cost of any new major sewer project. As to cesspools and septic tanks, Levy says the cost of upgrading them can reach $30,000 for a single home.
To begin to address those funding problems, Levy wants to tap the future growth of the Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund, which has been there to keep rate increases in the Southwest and smaller sewer districts reasonable.
Now that the debt on Southwest has been paid, Levy says, the fund will grow enough in the next decade to let the county tap $300 million of the growth for new sewer construction -- and still have a $140-million reserve.
But the major source of the money in this fund is the quarter-cent extra county sales tax. It began as a way to protect folks in the Southwest from suffering from the scandal-ridden district's obscene cost overruns. Later, the quarter-cent was used to protect people in smaller districts from price spikes when plants proved inadequate and needed upgrading. It also paid for the acquisition of open space and other environmental uses. Voter approval has accompanied major changes in the way this tax is spent, and the legislature is likely to push Levy to submit this to the voters, too.
In addition to building new sewers, an admirable goal, Levy should use some of this money to repair the Great South Bay part of the outfall pipe from the Southwest Sewer District's Bergen Point treatment plant, to make sure that it does not rupture on its way to the ocean and leak treated sewage into the bay. Fixing the deteriorating pipe could cost $150 million, spending that Levy wants to postpone. His plan, to wait and hope for the best, is unacceptable. So tapping this fund should provide at least a portion of the cost of repairing the pipe.
Any sewer plan, in addition to building or expanding sewers for downtown development, must also focus on areas of existing environmental problems, like Mastic, where cesspools have added significantly to the pollution to the Forge River.
Levy's correct to keep digging for sewer answers, but this proposal is a long way from a sure bet to get to the bottom of the problem. hN