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Senate bill could bring public water to the North Shore

Officials optimistic bill will go to Cuomo

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A bill to create the North Shore Water Authority passed the State Senate on July 23. It must now pass the Assembly to be put on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk for his signature.

The bill, authored by Sen. Jim Gaughran, a Democrat from Northport, would establish a public water authority that could take over the New York American Water-owned Sea Cliff Water District. That entity would then provide water to Sea Cliff, Glen Head and Glenwood Landing, as well as parts of Glen Cove, Roslyn Harbor and Old Brookville.

NYAW customers in the Sea Cliff Water District pay more for water than any other ratepayers on Long Island. Residents have fought for the establishment of a public water authority for years, and Gaughran has worked alongside them since he took office in January 2019.

Gaughran said the bill is timely, because NYAW agreed to sell the water district’s assets to Liberty Utilities for $608 million in November 2019. The Public Service Commission has yet to approve the sale.

“This is a bill that very simply gives the residents of [the Sea Cliff Water District] the ability to basically control their own destiny and try to move toward public water,” Gaugh-ran said.

NYAW External Affairs Manager Lee Mueller said the sale to Liberty would be in the customers’ best interests. She said government takeovers do not save customers money, citing a public takeover of water utilities in Edison, N.J., last year. According to mycentraljersey.com, Edison’s Township Council is set to vote on a possible 22 percent rate hike to pay for water authority salaries and costs associated with complying with the state’s 2017 Water Quality Accountability Act.

Mueller also said the greatest need is to eliminate the special franchise tax that Sea Cliff customers now pay, which comprises 31 to 55 percent of ratepayers’ bills.

“The State Senate recognized the inequity of this tax and passed legislation to eliminate the special franchise tax from our customers’ bills,” Mueller said. “We applaud their efforts and are hopeful this legislation will advance, because the fastest way to achieving more affordable water service for New York American Water customers is to remove the significant taxes that are unfairly imposed on our customers’ water bills, not saddling customers with additional costs to pay for a public takeover.”

Gaughran said the bill would create a statutory framework for the proposed water district, including a board of resident leaders. He said the board’s first action would likely be to review a feasibility study that began in April to determine whether it would be better for the district to become its own public water entity or to join with an existing one, with the neighboring Jericho Water District being the most likely choice. Gaughran did not give a date when the study’s results would come out, but said it would be soon.

Assemblyman Chuck Lavine, a Democrat from Glen Cove, authored a nearly identical bill for the Assembly’s consideration. He said there are minor differences in some of the language with respect to eminent domain, or the condemnation process, as well as the deletion of references to a public referendum on the choice between establishing a water entity or joining an existing one. He said he was pleased to see Gaughran’s bill pass the Senate.

Lavine said if the bill were to pass the Assembly, which he said he believes could happen given the events of recent weeks, he would work with Gaughran to discuss changes to the Senate bill so both houses would have identical pieces of legislation. If a unified bill were to pass both houses, Cuomo’s signature would then be required to finalize the law.

“I think this is wonderful,” Lavine said. “It has always troubled me that a commodity as precious as water can be controlled by private entities which seek to make a profit . . . Why there should have to be a profit factor when it comes to providing human beings with one of life’s most essential aspects has always been beyond me.”

Gaughran said he worked with members of the North Shore community in writing the bill. The Village of Sea Cliff has acted as the municipal medium between Albany and the North Shore community, and Mayor Edward Lieberman said the bill is the culmination of the village’s many years of litigation against NYAW. He said he is excited to see that the issue has caught the Senate’s attention.

“We’re hopeful that the New York Assembly and the governor will follow suit,” Lieberman said. “It’s an important stepping stone in ridding ourselves of New York American Water and any other private water company, which, in experience, has only demonstrated a lack of customer service while charging exorbitant prices to our ratepayers.”

Agatha Nadel, director of public water advocacy group North Shore Concerned Citizens, said she is thrilled with the legislation, which she said is a key piece in obtaining affordable public water. She said nearly 4,300 homes are “held hostage” by NYAW’s monopoly on the area’s water, and she thanked officials for their work in support for public water.

Nadel also noted the PSC is taking public comments on the establishment of a public water authority. She encouraged residents to make their voices heard through the public comment period on the possible sale of NYAW’s assets to Liberty.

“The hope is that this nightmare of being imprisoned by private water will end, and finally every ratepayer will receive a normal water bill like everyone else on Long Island,” Nadel said. “If the legislation is passed and signed by the governor and the feasibility study is positive, the path to public water should move rather quickly. Our moment is now.”