The atmosphere was tense in the meeting room of the Lynbrook Public Library on July 11 as dozens of South Shore residents gathered for a public meeting of the South Nassau Water Authority — the first since its creation in November 2021.
“I don’t anticipate a very congenial meeting tonight,” Seth Koslow, who is running for county legislator, said. “I think people are going to be upset and loud.”
Koslow was right. The meeting began with John Reinhardt, the authority’s temporary president, offering an overview of the timeline for its acquisition of Liberty Water, which provides water to most of Nassau County and is proposing a rate hike of up to 42 percent in some areas.
In March 2022, Town of Hempstead Supervisor Don Clavin promised the authority $500,000 in funding so it could move forward with acquiring Liberty’s assets. That May, the authority completed the first step in a four-step process for the takeover outlined by the state Public Service Commission, sending an introductory letter to Liberty Water to make it aware of the authority’s intent to acquire those assets. Over the following weeks, Liberty provided enough information to the authority to begin the valuation process.
Last week’s meeting continued with Bill DeWitt, an attorney representing the water authority, passing several resolutions, including the appointment of Robert York as the authority’s chairman and Michelle Bocci as its treasurer. Nearly in unison, many attendees asked with frustration why York was not at the meeting. When Reinhardt explained that York was on vacation, there were expressions of outrage, and the next several minutes were full of heated cross-talk, which set the tone for the rest of the evening.
The board continued the meeting by announcing the hiring of consultants, including Walden Environmental Engineering, and then adjourned to meet in executive session. This was met with another uproar.
“Why are we here?” one attendee asked.
“They don’t respect our time,” another said.
One man began making chicken noises as board members made their way out the back of the room. When they board was gone, David Denenberg, co-director of Long Island Clean Air Water & Soil and a former county legislator, joined by Michael Reid, of the Merrick Fire Department, stood and addressed the gathering.
“We don’t have water service, yet we pay taxes for a service we don’t get,” Denenberg said to the crowd, referring to those in Liberty’s service area who pay utility and other taxes to the county and town, but do not receive public water. Reinhardt said later that Denenberg’s statement was inaccurate, as those in Liberty’s service area do not have a water line on their tax bill, while those in public water districts do.
Denenberg introduced Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, who sponsored a bill to provide the water authority with $1 million in funding for the acquisition. She was met with a round of applause.
“The intention was to make sure the burden of financing is not on the citizen,” Solages said. “We’ve had many feasibility studies, even done by the state of New York, and we know this is possible. Let’s move forward and get it done.”
After 20 minutes, the board returned from its executive session, and the meeting was opened to public questions and comments. Denenberg asked why it had taken 17 months for the authority to hold a public meeting while the North Shore’s has had four.
“We are well ahead of the North Shore Water Authority,” Reinhardt said. “They’ve had four meetings so far where they’ve come forward and said, ‘We have nothing.’ Their website says everything is ‘to be determined.’ They’ve taken no action.”
Reinhardt later added that the South Nassau board didn’t want to hold a public meeting without having information available to present because it could create an “angry situation.”
Responding to the questions about the time that had passed since the board’s creation with seemingly no action taken, Reinhardt said, “You don’t buy a house without having it inspected, without knowing the condition of the house. This is a half-a-billion-dollar house that we’re buying.”
“This is this board moving forward potentially with buying a utility company in the names of you and all the other ratepayers in the room,” he added. “We’re doing that after we do due diligence to make sure that there aren’t massive liabilities out there.”
Rabbi Howard Nacht, of Merrick, told the board, “I urge you to move forward expeditiously to accomplish (the acquisition).
“Bring us in line with the other 97 percent of people who are paying for water in this state,” he added, referring to residents who receive public than private water service. Nacht’s comments were applauded by the crowd.
“Right now we’re paying these extreme prices for water, and the ratepayers are suffering,” Solages said, also suggesting that the board request emergency funding from Albany for the takeover. “We have an affordability crisis, and we really need to work expeditiously to ensure that we are saving the ratepayers money.”
Fred Harrison, a volunteer for the environmental group Food and Water Watch, commended the board’s previously unknown efforts in the acquisition process.
“We’ve waited an awful long time, and that’s why the frustrations are boiling out, even though you gave us good news,” Harrison said. “Because there is good news. I wish I knew that this commission had done that process. I had no idea that you had authorized any investigation.”
“I wish you well, but we’re going to be watching,” he added. “And I know we’re all going to be here at future meetings.”
Those meetings will be announced on the South Nassau Water Authority’s website, SouthNassauWater.org.