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Weren’t We Already Taxed Billions to Protect Our Water?

Carmen Riversm•  Op-Ed by Steve Levy

So now there is a new proposal to tax our water to the tune of $75 million annually to protect the quality of this precious resource. But why isn’t anyone asking what happened to the billion dollars we were taxed for over the past 40 years to do the same thing. Yes, that’s a billion with a B. Since 1975, Suffolk residents have been shelling out sums greater than from any other American locality in response to those who claimed if we didn’t accede, we’d be drinking water as polluted as that in Flint, Michigan. So we ponied up. And now they’re saying we have to do it all over again?
While most everyone is jumping on the bandwagon on what they claim is a marvelous, visionary form of new taxation (which cleverly gives politicians credit, but places the tax on the Water Authority’s bill), has anyone asked the questions as to what our present quality is, or what our reserves are, and how long they’ll last? The reports I’ve seen from impartial analysts state that our water quality is actually very good. And our reserves are massive. In fact, we’ve yet to tap all of the many levels of aquifers that have accumulated since the glacial melt.
Yes, nitrogen levels are increasing. When we hear there was a 40% increase in such levels in one area, what is the context? Does that exceed safe drinking levels or is it from such a low base that it is still a hundred times under a level of concern?
The immediate concern is predominately in surface waters – our bay, sound and rivers. This can be addressed by constructing new sewers and upgrading existing ones. The state is passing through hundreds of millions from Sandy aid to do just that.
In 2010, I passed a landmark law enhancing our sewer network. Unfortunately, it was revoked by a later administration. Environmental extremists inaccurately stated the program siphoned money from a clean water fund, but actually, the money was from a surplus existing in a fund intended only to stabilize sewer rates. The $100,000,000 plus surplus was evidence that the public had been overtaxed to stabilize rates already stabilized. Additionally, over the last four years the county has overtaxed residents of the South West Sewer District by $150,000,000 for debt service even though their debt was retired in 2011. And now, is there an attempt to overtax us again?
I have always been a big supporter of our open space program. (My administration preserved over 8,000 acres.) It preserved our rural character, which is essential for our tourist economy – especially on the East End. But it was also sold to us by environmentalists as a way to preserve pools of clean water for generations to come. Was this all just a big scam?
I write this article not to bash the county politicians promoting the proposal. It’s always easier to do nothing and play it safe. By the same token, employing diligent cost benefit analysis is crucial given these huge numbers. Is there a sunset provision or is the tax in perpetuity? Will the present 1/4 cent environmental sales tax stay in effect as well? And most important, will it bring about the desired results? Shouldn’t taxpayers know they may be asked to spend $25,000 for a septic system upgrade? (Loans or partial grants won’t cut it.) Or that alternative systems fail 35% of the time?
Remember, interior beaches are closed after heavy rains due to salts and fertilizers that are washed into the water. Perhaps controlling fertilizers is a much more effective and inexpensive solution. Or perhaps fixing our leaking sewer pipes might be better than other alternatives. Shouldn’t all this stuff first be studied more thoroughly to arrive at a consensus on the extent of the problem and what the most realistic, cost effective solutions are?
And let us be leery of studies by those who will tend to gain financially by scaring people to death and calling for hundreds of millions in more taxes. Regarding such discussions years ago, one Water Authority official noted, “Arguments are being made on a political and emotional level that really don’t have anything to do with science.” Could this be Deja vu all over again?
Advocates will say it’s only $73 per year. But that’s on top of our schools saying their latest bond was only $240 more a year, etc, etc. And by the way, the $75 million is equivalent to a 150% increase to our county general fund levy.
Let’s be smart and deliberate. Let’s keep our minds open, but above all, let’s get our facts straight before we ask our already over beleaguered taxpayers to pony up once again.
Steve Levy is President of Common Sense Strategies, a political consulting firm. He served as Suffolk County Executive, as a NYS Assemblyman, and host of “The Steve Levy Radio Show”

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