A 2011 proposal I laid out to install needed sewers in Suffolk County was squandered, but it’s still not too late to reinvigorate that program.
Early that year my team saw that there was more than $100 million in surplus money sitting in a fund created to stabilize county sewer rates. We had enough money to stabilize these rates for two decades, while still having a tremendous surplus remaining. In the meantime, there was a dire need for more sewers in Suffolk so that we could grow responsibly and maintain our water quality.
Sewer construction stagnated for decades because of the Southwest Sewer District scandal, and federal aid drying up. We thought it was time to resurrect our sewer programs, and thankfully we found a pot of money to accomplish that goal.
I, therefore, announced the landmark program to utilize the majority of that surplus for new sewers and to upgrade our present network to enhance water quality. A smaller remainder of the funds could also be used to help mitigate property tax increases over the next two decades.
A legal discussion ensued as to whether the initial establishment of the Sewer Stabilization Fund, which was passed by a public referendum, would require a subsequent referendum to modify its terms. A recent court decision had upheld a New York City resolution altering its term limits laws, even though the original proposal was passed via a referendum. So Suffolk did the same and jump-started this new program of restructuring of the Sewer Stabilization Fund to build sewers.
Our first directives called for an analysis of installing sewers for the Ronkonkoma Hub and downtown Smithtown. Many other localities, including Mastic and Oakdale, would follow.
The program was derailed when a private group sued to void the program because it did not seek a follow-up referendum. While the county triumphed in the lower court, eventually, it was decreed that a subsequent referendum would be needed, despite a ruling in an opposite manner for the New York City case.
A subsequent referendum was approved, but it unfortunately gutted the ability of the county to redirect the surplus funds for sewers, and instead allowed it all to be siphoned for filling budget holes. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars have been taken for purely budgetary purposes. Had our original landmark law been kept in place, by now, eight years later, we would’ve had many of our downtowns enjoying the needed sewers they have been asking for for so many decades.
It’s still not too late. When those funds are replenished, we should insist that the majority of that money go back toward the construction of needed new sewers. A smaller amount could go toward retiring debt, but ultimately, it makes the most sense to direct surplus sewer money back toward condo growth and a cleaner environment.
Steve Levy is the former Suffolk County executive and president of Common Sense Strategies.
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