2016-04-21 / Front Page

Bellone proposes new fees to protect Suffolk's drinking water

Question could be on November's ballot
by Carolyn James

S.C. Exec. Steve Bellone speaks at press conference this week outlining proposal to establish a separate fee for projects to preserve underground aquifer.S.C. Exec. Steve Bellone speaks at press conference this week outlining proposal to establish a separate fee for projects to preserve underground aquifer.S.C. Exec. Steve Bellone announced that voters would be asked to establish a Water Quality Protection Fee to fund water quality initiatives throughout the county, and to protect the underground aquifer that is the sole source of drinking water in Suffolk. The question could be put before them as early as November in a referendum.

“This referendum would literally turn the tide on Suffolk County water quality crisis,” said Bellone in making the announcement this week.

The County Executive was flanked by a host of supporters, including legislators, members of the New York league of Conservation Voters, the Nature Conservancy, and Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

Over the past decade, scientific studies have raised a red flag about the negative impact of nitrogen pollution on Suffolk’s surface waters, leading to the closure of shellfish beds, algal blooms, and beaches. There have been fish die offs and a report showed that nitrogen concentrations in one aquifer rose by 40 percent between 1987 and 2013, while levels in the deeper Magothy aquifer rose by 80 percent over the same time period.

Since Suffolk County gets its drinking water solely from these aquifers, the situation is becoming a crisis, said the studies.

Under the proposal, voters will be asked to approve a surcharge on their water bill of $1 per 1,000 gallons of water used. It is anticipated that this will generate $75 million in annual revenue for programs designed exclusively to reduce nitrogen pollution. Since the water authorities in the county are state authorities, establishing the new funding source required state approval and the referendum.

County officials estimate, after reaching out to the water authorities for the average consumers, that it will cost approximately $73 a year to fund the program.

Projects would be selected by a committee representing all of the county’s ten towns, and presented to the Legislature for inclusion in the county budget. The projects will be prioritized and Bellone said they would stretch well into the future, encompassing future administrations and generations of Suffolk residents.

 “This is not a cookie cutter approach,” said Bellone who pointed out that the needs vary throughout the county. “There is no one size fits all approach.  Suffolk is a diverse place and that diversity will require diverse solutions.”

While work on the East End might include paying for the installation of some state-of-the-art septic systems, South Shore communities could see funding to make improvements to the Bergen Point Sewer Treatment plant or to strengthen coastal vegetation, which is directly linked to protecting water quality and preventing storm damage.

The proposal will also help the economy, creating jobs, and has the support of labor.

The County Legislature must pass a Home Rule message asking the New York State Legislature to authorize the referendum. Following that it would be put on November’s ballot.

An advisory committee representing all ten towns in the county would be established and make recommendations on which projects will be undertaken and what the priorities are.

“We will look first at getting the best bang for our buck,” said Bellone. “But this will be a democratic process, fully open during the budget process and transparent, and while we don’t know now which projects we will begin with, what we do know for certain is that all the money invested by the taxpayers will go into water quality infrastructure.”

The fee has no sunset clause.  

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