Friday, 13 January 2012 00:00
Less than a week into 2012, Mayor George “Butch” Starkie of the incorporated Village of Farmingdale in the Town of Oyster Bay already has earned a 2012 nomination for some major good government award yet to be invented. In an effort to save the cost of two employees and some maintenance costs, Mayor Starkie has been pushing to have the neighboring Suffolk County Water Authority become operator of the village water supply system. Now, reasonable people might make a case for one of the other adjacent water suppliers to be the ones to pump village water. That Mayor Starkie has looked eastward, across the county chasm, is gutsy, realistic and, in the scheme of Nassau County political history, practically momentous.
A little more than twenty years ago, I was a state legislature staffer who, for reasons that are now fuzzy, sat in as a guest at one of the periodic meetings of Long Island’s town recycling and environmental coordinators. At that time, Long Island’s 13 towns, each controlling its own solid waste management program, were paying for some of their recyclable materials to be processed when most East Coast municipalities were actually selling theirs to processors. They were all bidding and working against each other. Soon, there was a strange and surrealistic scene. All the Suffolk County people were bunched up at one end of the long table, excitedly discussing the possibility of a combined intertown coalition. At the other end, the officials from Nassau County were sitting silently, hands folded, looking uncomfortable. I distinctly remember one man staring blankly, slowly twirling his thumbs. Here is what I was told: The Nassau people were forbidden to coordinate directly with governments of Suffolk County, particularly if somehow the frequently independent, bipartisan-minded and activist Suffolk County legislature might become involved.Nassau County leaders could not risk the spread of such infectious ideas into their territory.
Mayor Starkie’s innocent proposal has a whole bunch of people seething.
Not long after that meeting, legislation creating the Water Authority of Western Nassau County, was moving through the state legislature, offering potential relief to over 90,000 long-suffering customers of the infamous Jamaica Water Supply Company. Nassau County water districts flagged the legislation. The water districts were considered Senate Republican clients, and the bill stopped dead in the committee system, even though it had a proper Republican sponsor. A water district leader explained that putting “Nassau County” in any part of the name freaked them out about what may happen down the road. The bill was amended to include the exact metes and bounds, down to the foot, of the area in which the authority could operate any water system. Water commissioners were reassured that their domains were safe, the objections were removed and eventually Jamaica Water went away.
The networks of buddies that almost killed that legislation are no longer able to kill off good proposals with a glance. The people of Nassau County are past that, even if some politicians weary us by pretending it’s all still in place.
Mr. Starkie, a Republican, has come into conflict with elected officials of his own party on a number of items, including the need to design reasonable transportation and housing choices into Farmingdale’s downtown area. The fact that his proposals are still alive and viable, discussed in public and gaining supporters, would not have happened. That monolithic command and control power structure has been broken in this county, and the lack of any true substitute is a serious problem. Long Island needs new and big ideas to survive as other suburbs fade.
The alarming increase in drought and in concern over long-term viability of clean, fresh, plentiful water supplies will be the most important worldwide issue of 2012, and is already a critical three-alarm issue in parts of this country. Long Island’s underground aquifers are highly vulnerable to pollution and to saltwater intrusion. Groundwater is the life blood of Long Island as a region.
On one level, bringing in the Suffolk County Water Authority to a village of 8,000 people is not that big a change, not that big a deal. On another level, it is a declaration of independence for all of us.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org