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Pulse of the Peninsula: Sewer fix needed after Sandy damage

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Posted: Thursday, August 8, 2013 1:01 pm

Another circus is underway at the Nassau County Legislature.

This time, it is about a dire need to raise money to rehabilitate the county’s abysmal sewage treatment plants at Cedar Creek and Bay Park.

The county’s sewage treatment plants were in terrible shape even before Superstorm Sandy wreaked a devastating, near-fatal blow. Residents in the area suffered through raw sewage flooding into their homes, pollution of Reynolds Creek, foul stuff going into the ocean, and since then, with horrible odors, terrible noise from the external generators that have had to replace internal generators that no longer work, at a cost of $1 million a month.

$1 million a month.

Democrats on the county Legislature say they are ready and willing to spend appropriate funds - in fact, in mid-July authorized $262 million out of $722 million being sought by the administration. But they want an additional layer of oversight. Imagine that.

The reason the Democrats want an extra layer of oversight is because this administration does things without explaining anything. They point to $400 million authorization in 2010 that they say was not spent except for $50 million. 

Rob Walker, chief Deputy County Executive subsequently told me “$225 million were for projects that were either complete or could not have been started; over $135 million was authorized for pelletization facilities at Bay Park and Cedar Creek, which were never moving forward, and we can’t use for any other activity” under the bond authorization.

In any case, whatever millions in improvements to the plants likely would have been under water after Sandy; the new plans call for creating a state-of-the-art plant that is hardened against a 500-year storm.  

The Democrats have introduced a bill  to create the Sewer and Storm Water Integrity Oversight Board, which would establish close legislative oversight of the rebuilding process and help ensure it is efficient and cost-effective (good luck with that).

“Members of the Democratic Caucus are entirely committed to allocating the proper funds to renovate and fortify our sewage treatment plants, preventing such extensive damages from occurring again in the future,” Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams insisted in a press conference.

“However, this will be the largest and most expensive public works project in Nassau’s history, with a price tag of $2 billion, and adequate oversight of every aspect of the process is imperative in order to get the job done successfully.”

What is more, Mangano’s Administration’s $1 billion in new borrowing has brought the county’s debt load up to $3.5 billion, the highest in history. That has resulted in three bond downgrades for the county, which translates into higher borrowing costs. That will be a factor in this new borrowing.

The Democrats are questioning why, if the funds are needed so urgently, the Mangano administration, which now requires approval from the Nassau Interim Finance Authority anytime it wants to bond, did not bring up the $262 million at the July 31 meeting. 

Instead, it brought a list of $16 million in projects it wanted okayed. 

Walker explained that the process is to send the projects out to bid and then go to NIFA for final approval. 

“Bids will come back, NIFA knows the dollar amounts, and we get the contract approved by the legislature. This lets us work on a cash basis. NIFA, knows it’s coming. We are confident NIFA will approve, and they have to approve the contracts anyway.” Also, he added, “a contractor will never sign a contract knowing full well that the Legislature hasn’t authorized the amount. Now we have it authorized, NIFA will approve and we will go for additional bonding at the same time,” he said.

The Democrats aren’t looking good in this. The county is expecting 90 or even 100 percent of the $722 million to be reimbursed by FEMA, so it is virtually free money for the county. Yes, Virginia, there is a silver lining to the Sandy tragedy.

Also, the bonding - which could be short-term rather than long-term bonds - will be for the Sewer Authority, which serves 85 percent of county residents. Great Neck, Port Washington and other communities have their own sewer authorities and will not be part of the bond.

But it is depressing for those of us who sit in the cheap seats in the Legislature listening to the back-and-forth. 

“For us, what this looks like is a mess,” Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, told the Legislators on Monday. “We have two sides, both articulated concerns, objectives, but we don’t see path forward to solve the problem....I believe and hope both sides want to solve the problem, but now we need a pathway to solve.... The county needs to solve the problem, have an action plan.... If you guys get together and hash it out.... From this side, it doesn’t look like made much progress today..... What we need as communities that have worked on this for 10 years, is progress. Get the plant upgraded. We don’t care about an oversight committee, We care about getting the job done.”

Citizens Campaign for the Environment is among several organizations that Mangano just named to a newly formed 14-member Hurricane Sandy Wastewater Treatment Plant Advisory Committee charged with reviewing the plans and the progress of work at the County’s wastewater treatment plants. 

The Republicans are saying that this advisory committee makes the oversight board the Democrats are seeking superfluous. But they also charge that an oversight board such as the Democrats seek would be tantamount to “abrogating the Legislature’s responsibility.” At this writing, it was unclear whether the Democrats are looking for the new committee to consist of legislators, similar to the Legislature’s Finance Committee, Rules Committee and Public Safety committee.

Other organizations that will be represented on Mangano’s new advisory committee include: Operation Splash; Sludge Stoppers; League of Conservation Voters; Point Lookout Civic Association; Vision Long Island; and the Nassau Coalition of Civic Associations. Two representatives of the Nassau Suffolk Building Trade Council will also sit on the committee. Three committee members will be appointed by Mangano; one member by the Nassau County Legislature’s presiding officer and one by its minority leader.

The Hurricane Sandy Wastewater Treatment Plant Advisory Committee  meets bi-monthly with the Commissioner of Public Works and the Office of Legislative Budget Review to evaluate the status/progress of the repair and rehabilitation of the wastewater treatment plants. They must address any issues that arise during the course of that work and, after each meeting, they are to submit a progress report to County Executive Mangano.

Eric Alexander of Vision Long Island, also on the new committee, said, “People want the plant fixed. Vision Long Island supports full funding of bay park sewage treatment plant - which will be up to 90 percent reimbursable [by FEMA].”

I wonder if any of them actually know what is actually planned and how the money will be spent.

Why for example, weren’t there people from the engineering company, Hazen & Sawyer, to explain what is planned, or why wasn’t the Public Works commissioner there. 

And where was Comptroller Maragos to explain the financial ramifications, or an member of Legislative Budget Review to provide an independent overview of finances, to discuss interest rate options and whether there is an advantage to going for a single $722 million bond or breaking it up?

Walker said that representatives from  the county’s engineers, Hazen & Sawyer and Malcolm Pirnie appeared at the Legislature for the prior bond.

Contradicting the Democrats charge of how little transparency there is on this project, which will cost $1 billion for the repairs, and nearly $1 billion more for a proposed outflow pipe from Bay Park to the ocean, Walker insisted, “doing this is a transparent process working with civics... and we have the oversight and due diligence.” 

He points to the advisory committee, as well as state agencies including the Environmental Facilities Corporation and Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as federal government agencies that have to sign off on the mitigation. Even Jon Kaiman, Cuomo’s Long Island Sandy Czar, might have a role to play.

The Democrats - who insist they have been given a mere 10-minute PowerPoint presentation and a “take it or leave it” ultimatum - are demanding the creation of a Sewer and Stormwater Integrity Board, which would consist of 10 people, four picked by the majority, four by the minority and two members of the building trades, apparently as the condition for their votes for bonding.

The Republicans claim that such an oversight committee would be redundant to Mangano’s advisory committee, and would “abrogate” the Legislature’s responsibility. 

But Mike Florio, the spokesperson for the Democratic Legislators, said, “that one reports to Mangano, not the Legislature. And we are not abrogating our responsibility - the Legislature will still review, but they would have a more informed opinion. We want someone who has been repairing sewer systems for 30 years, who has degree from engineering.” 

The board would simply attach their recommendation to the funding request when it is sent to the Rules Committee.

“Let’s have someone who understands this for their whole life,” he said, a counterpoint to Millet’s admission that he had no knowledge whatsoever of sewers until he came to this position as deputy commissioner of public works.

I questioned where Mangano’s plan to privatize the sewer authority might come into this whole process.

As recently as May, 2012 Mangano was pushing a privatization plan “allowing the county to retire approximately 25 percent of Nassau’s debt and generate millions in reoccurring savings for the county to hold the line on property taxes by implementing a public-private-partnership for the maintenance and operation of Nassau’s sewers. 

This action will protect our taxpayers, children and our environment,” Mangano said at a presentation of the privatization plan.

At the time, the plants had racked up over $1 million in Department of Environmental Conservation fines.

The plan required a private operator to make necessary and costly improvements as part of a contract to operate and maintain Nassau’s sewage treatment system while stabilizing rates and avoiding the NIFA predicted bankruptcy.

But here’s the problem with it: Mangano claimed the deal would have provided the county with $750 million - the equivalent of 25 percent of the then, $3 billion, in the county’s outstanding debt. 

But then where would the $750 million come from to rebuild the plants?

Apparently, NIFA was skeptical also because in September 2012, just about a month before Sandy hit, the overseers rejected Mangano’s privatization plan.

Walker insisted that the $722 million plan to rehabilitate and mitigate the plants “has nothing to do with privatization. This is purely about getting the plant back. Our focus now is not on privatization, it’s on fixing the plant. We can’t make any determinations until the plant is up running. Now it is running on temporary measures. We have to make it a state of the art facility before you talk about anything else.

What is most remarkable is that the plants are working at all - the county is spending $1 million a month on external generators at Bay Park since the plant no longer has working generators.

The question now is whether the plants can survive at all, and what happens when the patches don’t work anymore?

“We are putting public health and safety at risk if the plant fails,” a beleaguered Richard Millet, deputy commissioner of public works, told the Legislature.

Asked what further delays would mean, Millet said, “We will continue to have a plant operating on a shoestring, bubblegum and tape and eventually the bubblegum and tape will run out.”

Asked what is keeping the plant running, Millet said, “We continue to use emergency work. When something breaks, whether a pump or fuse box or motor control, we fix it, get a new piece, but we continue to throw good money after bad. We should be doing an entire rebuild.”

Now, the communities in the county - like Great Neck and Port Washington - which are not served by the county’s sewage treatment system may think none of this affects us. Great Neckers continue to titter in relief at combating the county’s pressure to shut down our treatment system and divert to Cedar Creek.

But this affects the entire county economy as well as the well being and quality of life and desirability of living in Nassau County. It affects the bond rating of the county, which causes all of us to pay more in debt service.

I have to say, though, that despite the horrendous way the Mangano administration manhandles and the Republicans steamroll, the Democrats are wrong to insist on bonding in increments as a means of controlling the process and not allowing runaway expenditures by an administration they do not trust.

Just authorizing the bonding does not mean that all $722 million will be bonded at once, before the money is needed ,which could be two or four years from now.

But what is needed is a different plan altogether, one that looks to rebuild the plants altogether, not piecemeal, which I would bet would be cheaper and faster, and result in a state-of-the-art facility.

As Millet pointed out,  “We are not doing single pieces; this whole entire system. Contractors have to be in contact with each other, in meetings, coordinating through consultants, how work will get done. It’s very complicated, not simple. It has to touch every piece of the plant, and every piece of the plant has different needs.

“Professional engineers say we need to do this holistically. We need a brand new plant We can’t do a piece and come back; the parts have to communicate, have to talk to each other.

“Each aspect would have to go through an approval process,” when in essence, he says, “we are building a whole new plant.” There is also a cost issue - being able to purchase equipment well in advance or in larger quantities.

“The recommendation of the engineers is that has to go as one job. All the contractors have to understand the work project.”

And that is the point. It isn’t even about amassing all the funding at one time. The focus should be on building an entirely new, state-of-the-art plant.

It needs to be done as a whole, and then I will bet it can be done cheaper and faster, with less risk to the people who live around the plants and to the residents who depend on them.

Indeed, Sandy changed the parameters. It is no longer sufficient just to replace and restore. Now the federal and state authorities responsible for funneling Sandy funding are requiring that structures be hardened against future events.

Here, again, is where you would think Jon Kaiman, Gov. Cuomo’s Long Island Sandy Czar, would have a role to play.

The county should be looking to do what we are doing in Great Neck: rebuilding a new, state-of-the-art, consolidated plant on the same site. The county should build a brand new, state-of-the-art plant from the ground up, adjacent to the present plant, and then demolish the present plant and turn that site back to park land. (Walker says there isn’t enough room to build a new facility.

If Mangano proceeds with a privatization plan, it should follow the model of the Cuomo’s LIPA restructuring, bringing the best of a public utility with a private company: Nassau County should continue to own the plant, should be able to continue to access funding at lower municipal rates and also have the ability to get FEMA reimbursement, have strict oversight of rates, but bring in a qualified company to operate the plant.

Instead, the county is again embroiled in a pathetic round of political gamesmanship, and government by crisis. Mangano is not being forthcoming, and the Democrats are forced to look like obstructionists against the choking voice and tears of residents who come forward with tales of woe about their children no longer being able to swim or go crabbing in the fouled waters.

The politics of this don’t really make sense. You would think that Mangano would be hurt in the upcoming election if he has chalked up $2 billion in debt in just his first term and he would regard the Democrats’ insistence on dividing up the bonding as a gift.

Certainly, Suozzi has made Mangano’s profligate bonding a centerpiece of his campaign to re-take the county executive’s office.

“Mangano’s only financial plan has been to borrow money and burden future generations of Nassau taxpayers with insurmountable debt,” said Suozzi.

And you would think the Democrats, knowing they will ultimately have to pony up that sort of money, would relish saddling the Republican administration with it, rather than the next administration which would have to bear the cross.

In addition to the $326 million specifically for Bay Park, Monday’s agenda included $30.6 million in bonds to finance the payment to police department employees being separated from employment, plus $125 million in assorted bond resolutions for unspecified “capital expenditures” that apparently included mosquito control.

On the other hand, if it is true that 90 to 100 percent of the funding will be reimbursed, then Mangano looks like the hero.

Meanwhile, as Millet noted, if another storm event knocks out the plants before the county has installed the necessary mitigation, would FEMA even cover it?

It will be a minimum of two to four years before the improvements are made to these plants.

But look at the devastation that would be caused. This isn’t like a gasoline shortage or a power outage. This would make communities totally unlivable.

As one woman said, “The South Shore would become a ghost town.”

How will the stalemate be broken? To quote “Shakespeare in Love,” “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

In the meanwhile, it is yet another example of Mangano’s - and the Republican majority’s - governing style: by crisis in order to avoid any serious discussion, review, recommendation. 

It has been this way with the Nassau Coliseum, redistricting, privatizing Long Island bus, the budget, and just about any major initiative you can think of. 

He governs by crisis and expects the Democrats to either just come along or look like the bad guy obstructionists. 

And thanks to Republican gerrymandering, this is the Legislature - and style of government - Nassau County will have in perpetuity.

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