One of these days, in the not too far away future, a Water Authority of GN North (WAGNN) truck will roll through your neighborhood in a specially fitted vehicle that will have the capacity to "read" your meter without an operator having to step out, ring your bell and physically "eyeball" your meter. Instead, in an automated reading system, similar to the technology of the E-Z pass, the truck will have a multi-directional "wand" that will register the numbers from your meter in order to generate your bill. According to Robert Graziano, superintendent of the authority, the savings in employee hours will be meaningful.
Another move toward more automation will occur in the control center of the authority, a room already incomprehensible to this layperson. It looks like something from a Starwars spaceship panel with rows of screens and dials that denote pumping rates at the various wells and flows of the various water mains throughout the network that brings water to your house. Currently, this intricate system is monitored manually. Again, in the future, this system will be updated to allow computers to regulate and oversee all of the information that pours into the center.
First, one should understand that the authority now has a "unified" system of delivering water. Once upon a time, you received your water from a well physically near your home; now, your water might come from a well clear across town because the circulation system is no longer segmented. All water, no matter where it originates, can flow everywhere. This was a critical improvement to the system. It assures that pumping, particularly in the summer months, does not overly stress certain wells and thus helps prevent salt-water intrusion, a phenomenon that plagues many water districts on Long Island.
Pumping demands vary greatly during different times of the day and can quickly rise due to certain circumstances. For example, if the Vigilants or Alerts were called to fight a fire, more water would be needed in a specific location than usual. Adjustments are now made because the operator notices that suddenly rates of water flow are changing. With the proposed system, those adjustments would be made automatically with the computers communicating instantly with each other, although manual overrides would still be possible, if necessary.
Mr. Graziano expects that personnel costs will go down significantly as a result of implementing these new technologies and that they will occur in time through attrition. As we have noted in budget analyses of public entities, the parks, the schools, and the libraries, oftentimes the bulk of operating expenses goes for pay for personnel costs including ever-increasing health insurance and retirement expenses.
All of these upgrades for new technology are initially expensive. As we have noted in prior articles, maintaining the infrastructure and safety of the water distribution system and purity of the water itself is an ongoing costly matter as well. At the May 23 meeting of the authority's directors, a vote was taken to restructure the bond financing to take advantage of lower interest rates. Older bonds amounting to $15 million were written under a swap agreement that will be terminated and a traditional bond for $5 million will be sold. This strategy results in accessing more money while keeping the debt service at the same level. The resulting interest rate is 4.7 percent.
One of our readers had brought to our attention that grant money is available under FEMA and Homeland Security programs for water districts. We spoke with Terry Hastings in NYS Senator Michael Balboni's office in Albany about the availability of such funds. We learned that there are many restrictions and limitations on such grants.
First, grant money was available for technical assistance in assessing safety precautions for water purveyors. That funding stream has no money for construction projects. The only water companies eligible for this funding are those that are large, servicing 100,000 customers or more. Most districts on Long Island are much smaller. Other monies available under the "Buffer Zone Protection Program" are designated by the New York State Office of Emergency Management, which determines "key resources." According to Mr. Hastings, it is a program that water districts cannot apply for but are simply awarded because the state has decided that a particular area is a prime area of concern.
In addition, there has been much controversy about the amount of money under the auspices of Homeland Security that has not trickled down to the local level. Senator Balboni has served on a national Task Force that has made many recommendations about how to make the money more readily accessible and comprehensible to critical resources, such as water districts.
The authority has been able to secure outside monies however. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation funded a million-dollar upgrade for a water scrubber and Lockheed Martin funded a million dollar granulated carbon-activated filter program.
The directors who sit on the Water Authority of Great Neck North are the mayors of the villages served by the authority, the Villages of Great Neck, Kings Point, Saddle Rock, Kensington, the Plaza, Thomaston and the Estates plus a designee from the Town of North Hempstead. The chairperson is Michael Kalnick, mayor of Kings Point, and the attorney is Steven Limmer. Their meetings are open to the public and are usually conducted on the third Monday of the month.
(Summer intern Chad Smith contributed to this article.)