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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Suffolk Legislature Closes Public Portion on Water Quality Act


Photo Credit – Matt Meduri

The summer months played host to a contentious local law issue: a ballot measure that would allow Suffolk residents to approve or reject an eighth-cent sales tax increase to fund sewer and Innovative Alternative Wastewater (I/A) Systems across the county and phase out outdated cesspools and septic systems.

The Suffolk County Legislature tabled the initiative, as many Legislators said they were uncomfortable with the lion’s share of projected tax revenue going to I/A systems, for which there is much less demand than sewers.

This year, the Legislature and County Executive Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) passed a revised initiative to be signed by Governor Kathy Hochul (D) to allow Suffolk County voters to amend the tax code. Governor Hochul signed the legislation at Captree State Park last month.
The public portion of the bill, I.R. 1461-2024, was closed after Tuesday’s general meeting in Hauppauge. Many community stakeholders came to support the initiative.

Peter Topping, Executive Director of Peconic Baykeeper, said that he supports the plan.

“I’m happy to have a clear path forward to generate the funding that we need to both improve sewering and upgrade the over 300,000 septic systems that are polluting the ground and surface waters of Suffolk County,” said Topping. “I’ve borne witness to this issue since I was a kid in the 1980s with brown tide. I see rust tide, blue-green algae blooms, mahogany tides, macroalgae blooms. All these things are proliferating in our creeks and embayments as a result of putrefaction from nitrogen and other nutrients in our waterways.”

Bob DeLuca, President of Group of for the East End, said that the initiative is “one of the most important clean water actions set forth in the county’s adopted sub-watershed wastewater plan.”

“After more than a decade of research, analysis, broad-based stakeholder engagement, technological advancement, and related rule-makings within the Suffolk County Sanitary Code, and a fair amount of hard work by all of you [Legislators] and others, the passage of these two resolutions is the essential last legislative step in Suffolk County’s generational commitment to a clean water future,” said DeLuca. The other resolution DeLuca referred to is I.R.1460, which will consolidate the sewer districts into two zones of assessment.

Eric Alexander, Executive Director of Vision Long Island, spoke in favor of the bill as well.

“Long Island is a community of communities and that’s when the individual communities themselves and their leaders speak; they’re the most important voices in my view,” said Alexander. He listed twenty communities for which Vision Long Island has advocated sewers, or communities who have reached out to Vision Long Island directly on the matter. Within Islip Town, Alexander listed Central Islip, Brentwood, Sayville, and Holbrook. WIthin Smithtown, Kings Park and Smithtown hamlet. Within Brookhaven, North Bellport, Gordon Heights, Mastic Beach, Coram, Mastic, Middle Island, Shirley, Farmingville, and Port Jefferson Station.

Alexander said that small businesses “thrive” when sewage treatment is accessible, reinforcing the importance of downtown revitalization initiatives.

Casey Petrachek, a representative for the New York League of Conservation Voters, said that the act would “improve drinking water, protect public health and boost the economy.”

“The funds, much of which will be paid from visitors, will create thousands of good local and union jobs, revitalizing business districts and increasing property values,” said Petrachek. “We know a bipartisan majority of voters are in favor of state and local initiatives to safeguard clean drinking water.”

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), posed a question to Petrachek inquiring about his age. Petrachek replied that he is thirty-four years old.

“In 1987, this body passed a quarter-cent sales tax for clean water and open space. Since then, in the past couple of years, we raided it for $200 million,” said Trotta. “We have not paid it back. Out of that about $100 million a year in the quarter cent sales tax, $39 million goes into the general fund. It isn’t even used for $300 million. So, if you were to take the $39 million on the quarter-cent sales tax, add it to the $11 million a year that we could do for the next twenty-six years to pay back the $200 million, we would have the same amount of money this eighth-cent [tax] would do without raising the taxes.”

Matt Aracich, President of the Nassau Suffolk Building and Construction Trades Council, thanked the Legislators for their efforts in putting this referendum on the November ballot.

“[I.R.] 1461 is something that the Building Trades [Council] sees as an opportunity for everyone, for the county, for the workers, for the residents, and for the environmentalists,” said Aracich. “There is not one thing that we’re looking to change other than the idea that we want to expand everything we can and move this as quickly as possible.”

Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, also thanked the Legislature and County Executive Romaine for guiding this bill through to the Governor’s desk.

“Today is the day when we turn the page in history for Suffolk County’s future. Today is the day where we make history in creating a cleaner, safer, healthier Long Island for generations to come,” said Esposito. “We long for the day when Suffolk County will no longer be known as the septic capital of the world. We need a different title and we’ll get a different title with this project.”

Legislator Trish Bergin (R-East Islip) asked George Hoffman, of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, what consequences could be faced from pumping “millions of gallons of water” into the ocean instead of letting the wastewater percolate into the aquifer.

Hoffman said that under the current sewer districts, some waterpump into the harbors, while other waters go into individual septic systems, which recharge the groundwater over time.

“Right now, it’s recharging the ground with nitrogen-laden septic waters, which is not good,” said Hoffman. “Most of the homeowners around the shore of Port Jefferson Harbor have antiquated septic systems.”

The bill’s public portion was closed with all seventeen Legislators present voting in the affirmative. Legislator Stephanie Bontempi (R-Centerport) was absent.

Matt Meduri
Matt Meduri
Matt Meduri has served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Messenger Papers since August 2023. He is the author of the America the Beautiful, Civics 101, and This Week Today columns. Matt graduated from St. Joseph's University, Patchogue, in 2022, with a degree in Human Resources and worked for his family's IT business for three years. He's also a musician and composer with his sights set on the film industry. Matt has traveled all around the U.S. and enjoys cooking, photography, and a good cup of coffee.