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Suffolk County shelves sewer expansion plan that would use sales tax hike to pay for it

Andy Rogers

Environmentalists are concerned that time is running out to put a referendum on the November ballot about whether to use a sales tax hike to pay for water quality projects in Suffolk County.

Republicans in the legislative majority shelved an effort to both consolidate the county's sewer districts and advance a voter referendum on 0.125% sales tax increase to fund clean water initiatives.

Legislator Nick Caraccapa (R-Selden) said residents are already tax burdened and any money should go toward building new and strengthening existing sewer districts.

“Nitrogen in our waterways is causing tremendous problems. The quickest way, the best way to respond to those issues are putting sewers in the ground, not to have tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions by the end of this process, sitting around waiting for residents to ask or request a grant for [update septic] systems,” Caraccapa said.

Republicans also cited current programs that have mostly benefited homeowners in eastern Long Island, while some coastal communities have waited decades for sewer systems. “We have clean water to drink and our surface waters,” Legislative Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said. “But I also think that we need to get it right."

Under the referendum, most of the funding would go toward replacing outdated septic tanks and cesspools. The measure also would extend the county Drinking Water Protection Fund until 2060, which uses an existing 0.25% sales tax to pay for water quality upgrades like sewers.

The separate proposal to consolidate the county’s 27 sewer districts would streamline billing structure and methodology. It would create a single district wide map to pin-point which communities would be best served with sewers or septic tank replacement.

“The resolution before you would create is not a countywide sewer district at all,” said Peter Scully, the county’s water quality chief. “Sewer infrastructure is not a cost effective solution to the lack of wastewater infrastructure in many areas of our county. And for those communities the solution instead is the installation of new septic technology.”

Scully said both measures are needed to fund and implement the county Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan — a 50-year, $4 billion effort to reverse nitrogen pollution in Suffolk’s waterways.

Decades of pollution has led to toxic algal blooms that cause fish kills and shellfish die-offs year-after-year. Tens of thousands of outdated septic and cesspools across the county need to be replaced or added to sewer districts.

“I am frustrated to hear there is so much competition between septics and sewers,” said Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “We need both of them — not one or the other.”

Dozens of labor and environmental groups testified in support of the pair of measures during a four-hour public hearing Wednesday night. They urged legislators that any hesitation could hold Suffolk County back from billions of dollars in state and federal environmental and infrastructure spending.

“Sewers are critical for downtown revitalization,” said Elissa Kyle, placemaking director for the economic development group Vision Long Island. “Many of our downtowns have legacy sewers that they've had for over 100 years and several others are starting to get them, but those without sewers are severely limited in what they can do to revitalize.”

Ryan Stanton, executive director of the Long Island Federation for Labor, AFL-CIO, added, “The reality is it jeopardizes meeting the timeline for the voters to have the opportunity to make that decision.”

The measures were sent back to the county Budget and Finance Committees, making it unlikely that the referendum will appear on the November ballot. The last chance for the full Legislature to approve the ballot question would be July 25 before the Aug. 4 deadline.

“Please don't deprive the voters of the ability to make that decision,” Stanton said.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.