The issue of water quality and wastewater management has long been a conversation for decades on Long Island. Living on a sandbar, surrounded by water, on top of a sole-source aquifer has prompted initiatives, referendums, and legislation over the years to protect our groundwater and innovate our wastewater systems, while also converting our downtowns to be more economically sustainable.
The issue came to a head over the summer ahead of the 2023 local elections. Republicans in the Suffolk County Legislature voted against sending an initiative to the 2023 ballot in the form of a public referendum to create a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase to fund sewer installations and septic replacements across Suffolk County.
Republicans argued that an extra tax was unnecessary in the time of economic uncertainty, especially in light of hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits the county is forced to pay back after misappropriating taxpayer dollars previously earmarked for sewer and septic upgrades under the Levy and Bellone administrations. Furthermore, Republicans expressed doubt in allocating 75% of the projected revenue to install Innovative and Alternative (I/A) systems, with 10% for administrative costs, with the remaining 15% possibly going towards sewers. Sewers have been in stronger demand, especially in light of downtown revitalization, and the bill’s vague language cast doubt on the final destination of the remaining 15%.
Now, in a 16-2 vote, the Suffolk County Legislature has voted to approve a home-rule message in support of legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor) and Senator Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood). Last year’s legislation signed by Governor Kathy Hochul (D) required the revenues raised by the sales tax to be split 75%-25% between I/A Systems and sewers, respectively.
The Thiele-Martinez bill amends last year’s bill in that it requires 25% of the existing quarter-cent sales tax, pursuant to the Suffolk County Water Quality Restoration Act, be dedicated to the sewer taxpayer protection fund, with other amounts dedicated solely to individual septic system upgrades. The revenue transferred from the sewer protection fund to the water quality protection fund will increase by 5% year-over-year to reach a 50%-50% split by year eight. The transfer will increase to 70% in years nine and ten, and then go back down to 50%-50% from year eleven and afterward.
Once passed in Albany, the initiative will be presented to the voters on the 2024 ballot for them to approve or reject the tax increase.
Legislators, labor leaders, and environmental lobbyists convened at the Rose Caracappa Auditorium in Hauppauge to announce the deal.
“This announcement is a culmination of years of planning and negotiating,” said Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst). “We’re able to commit to the promises that we made to our children and grandchildren that we are going to leave Suffolk County in a better place than we found it. We stand on the water that we drink and so we need to do everything that we can to make sure that we protect those bodies of water and the water that we drink. And the only way we’re going to do that is to make an investment.”
“The future of this county depends on clean water,” said County Executive Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches). “We’ve watched for years as cesspools have functioned as our major source of wastewater and they’ve harmed our groundwater and surface water. Let’s do sewers where we can. Let’s do IA systems where we can. Let’s make sure that we will always have clean water, not only under our feet to drink, but clean water on our surfaces, bays, rivers, creeks, streets, and the Sound.”
Romaine also spoke of good stewardship regarding sewer implementation to ensure economic development as well as water quality protection.
“When we build these sewers, let’s be conscious of our future,” Romaine continued. “Let’s not pump the effluent out to the ocean or to the Sound. Let’s make sure we try to recharge as much of that effluent, so that we not only have a water quality problem, but we don’t have a water quantity problem. Let’s make sure that when we design the sewers in the future, we not only treat our wastewater, but our road runoff as well, which we don’t do now. Let’s redesign our sewer systems. Let’s build a better future. Today, we all stand together for one purpose: to build a better future for this county.”
“We need this to be approved so all of us can have better drinking water, so we can have one sewer district, so we don’t have unequal systems of taxation, and so we make sure that we all have a voice at the table,” said Minority Leader Jason Richberg (D-West Babylon). “Let us not forget that we also need to make sure that alternative wastewater systems are subsidized by the federal government as well.”
Kevin McDonald, Conservation Project Director for Public Lands at The Nature Conservancy, said the last initiative as significant as this one was that of the Pine Barrens Protection Act. He said that the current water quality bill can protect the drinking water stored under the Pine Barrens for “hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Matt Aracich, President of the Nassau and Suffolk Building and Construction Trades Council, said that the bill is also an economic bill.
“The reason is because building tradespeople are going to be doing all the schoolwork,” said Aracich. “We want to make sure that we start the whole initiative with saying we offer careers, and we want to take that along with us. When you get the opportunity to utilize pre-apprentice programs and apprentice programs, it’s the best thing that we can do for the county, because all that money stays local, and all those people have the opportunity to make sure that they have a living and can stay here.”
“From farmlands to woodlands to wetlands, we preserved those land areas, but we were not aggressive about dealing with our wastewater,” said Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “We made a mess and now it’s time to clean it up. This one eighth of a penny will allow us to protect public health, protect our drinking water. It will allow us to restart our maritime culture by reuniting our shellfish industry. It’ll allow us to protect our beaches, bays, and harbors, and also ensure our home values. In short, it’ll make Long Island more livable, lovable, and sustainable for the future. This one-eighth of a cent is not an expenditure of funds, it’s an investment of funds.”
When asked if voters should be skeptical of the tax increase, County Executive Romaine said that prevention is more valuable than a cure that might not be possible.
“This is an all-Suffolk bill. We’re all in, all-Suffolk, for our future,” said Romaine. “Think of what the future is and the cost of not doing that and addressing this problem over the last thirty years. It’s time to step up to the plate because if we don’t, we won’t be able to drink our water and our surface waters, some of them have already turned foul. We need to stand up for Suffolk.”
“The cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action,” said Esposito. “The cost of inaction is increased harmful algal blooms, not being able to use our beaches, which are the hearts of our local tourism-driven economy. It would devalue our homes every time we have brown tide, red tide, rust tide, mahogany tide, and now we have pink tide. We also have blue-green algae in our freshwater lakes. It’s not an expenditure of funds, it’s an investment of funds for our health, for our future, but also for our economy.”
Also in attendance were Deputy Presiding Officer Steve Flotteron (R-Brightwaters), as well as Suffolk Legislators Catherine Stark (R-Riverhead), Ann Welker (D-Southampton), Jim Mazzarella (R-Moriches), Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), Chad Lennon (R-Rocky Point), Dominick Thorne (R-Patchogue), Sam Gonzalez (D-Brentwood), Trish Bergin (R-East Islip), Rebecca Sanin (D-Huntington Station), Tom Donnelly (D-Deer Park), and Stephanie Bontempi (R-Centerport).