For several months now, a daily newspaper has been consistently printing charges against the administration of the Water Authority of Great Neck North, lumping it into the frenzy of blanket accusations about special districts. There have been insinuations of lavish spending, unfavorable cost comparisons with other water providers, and nepotism. How much is fact and how much is exaggeration and unsubstantiated innuendo?
First, the Water Authority of Great Neck North (WAGNN) is not a special district. Over 20 years ago, leaders in Great Neck realized that Citizens Water Company, a private for-profit water purveyor, was not providing sound stewardship over an essential resource, the community's water supply. There was a large public outcry at the time, deploring the condition of the company's infrastructure and questioning the purity of the water itself.
Water Authority of Great Neck North Board of Directors. Each village and the unincorporated areas served by the authority is represented on the board of directors. L. to R. Superintendent Robert Graziano, Chairman Michael Kalnick, Mayor Leonard Samansky, Mayor Ralph Kreitzman, Edward Causin, Mayor Bonnie Golub, Deputy Mayor Steve Weinberg, and Mayor Jean Celender.
With a special act of the New York State Legislature, an authority was established to purchase the water company and to oversee, administer and protect this critical public commodity. The mayors or their designated representatives of the villages served would act as the directors of the authority. The directors, unlike special district commissioners, are not paid. For the most part, the mayors themselves have served. The villages of Great Neck, Great Neck Estates, Kings Point, Plaza, Kensington, Thomaston, and Saddle Rock constitute the service area along with the unincorporated areas on the north side of town. Shirley Siegal has represented the Town of North Hempstead since the inception of the authority in 1990 until recently when the town supervisor, Jon Kaiman decided to join the board.
By setting up this structure, in December of 1989, the community purchased the water company at a cost of $18 million. Every year, 27.5 percent of the water authority's budget goes toward paying off the bond used to buy the system.
This history is important to keep in mind when engaging in comparing costs among water systems in different communities. In fact, it is difficult to make accurate cost comparisons because there are so many variables that skew the results.
According to Authority Chairman Michael Kalnick, mayor of Kings Point, the directors decided years ago to provide the highest level of water quality possible, a standard called "non detect" which means that after treatment, contaminants that are regularly sampled and tested for, are not detected. This exceeds New York State standards. It is more expensive to achieve.
Superintendent Robert Graziano, who began working for Citizens Water Company 37 years ago as a laborer and who went back to school to become a professional water manager, points out each community's water source is highly idiosyncratic. He says, "Great Neck is a mature community with commercial, industrial and residential components... A community like Levittown, all residential, doesn't have the same issue with pollutants that we do. Years ago it was common practice for dry cleaning establishments to pour contaminants out on their properties...that's why we ended up with a Stanton Cleaners Superfund site. Gas stations also have gas and oil spills or leaks that work their way into the aquifers over time."
The authority tracks the movement of contaminants in the aquifer, using a system of monitoring wells, and moves aggressively to design and construct treatment capabilities before any plume of contamination reaches a well-head. Mr. Graziano said, "We know that we have MTBE (a gasoline additive that is considered a carcinogen) headed our way; it will require an upgrade for our treatment plant that will cost about $500,000 to complete." The Department of Environmental Conservation is currently investigating in an attempt to determine the source of the MTBE. Even in trace amounts, M.T.B.E., or methyl tertiary butyl ether, makes water smell and taste like turpentine.
In some cases, there are responsible parties, such as Lockheed Martin Corp. or the federal government with its superfund site grants, that contribute to the costs of cleaning the water, but in other cases, either the polluting company is out of business or it is unclear where and what the source of contaminants are. The authority tries to recoup funds from polluters whenever possible, but when that is not possible, the water still needs to be treated.
Other communities that were compared with Great Neck do not have salt-water intrusion problems that have required the authority to drill new wells off the peninsula. The new wells, located near North Shore Hospital, cost $6 million to install and equip and the additional piping cost $3 million.
Other communities' systems are newer as well. There are water mains in Great Neck that are 100 years old. Slowly, but surely, the authority has been replacing old piping. Newer communities that built piping 50 years ago do not need to perform major upgrades on the infrastructure, yet.
The recent vote by the directors to change the rate structure has also been misrepresented in terms of increased fees.
Water users are billed quarterly and are charged based on water consumption. The $18.45 surcharge paid by everyone, regardless of usage, has been eliminated. Those using 7,480 gallons were charged a total of 42.95 before the change. Now they will pay $39.50. Customers using 11,220 gallons were paying $55.20; now they will pay $59.25. Customers using 14,960 gallons were paying $67.45; now they will pay $79. Those who used a whopping 18,700 gallons were paying $80.60; now they will pay $98.75.
Mr. Graziano said, "What people need to understand is that the money they pay to purchase water goes back into improving the system, dollar for dollar."
The authority was criticized for purchasing a truck for the assistant superintendent that had a CD player. The truck was purchased through the New York State approved purchasing list, a method that provides discounts through group buying. Mr. Graziano said, "It was the cheapest truck on the list and it came with a CD player."
The "plasma TV" mentioned is, in fact, a large, flat screen that can simultaneously be used to display security shots from cameras posted at various critical sites in the authority's catchment area. It also serves as a computer screen.
Mr. Graziano's salary was also held up to be excessively high by the news article. It was quoted as $192,427. Actually, Mr. Graziano's salary is $177,414. His income this past year was higher due to the fact that since he will be retiring this summer, he was paid $15,012 for 22 days of unused vacation time and the vehicle he uses has an added value of $1,813 for the year for taxing purposes.
The article stated that the Long Island Water Conference conducted a study that showed Mr. Graziano to be the highest paid water manager on the Island. According to a spokesman from the conference, no such study has ever been conducted.
Director Edward Causin representing the Village of Great Neck Estates on the authority says, "In reality Mr. Graziano is paid reasonably, for doing an exceptional job. When the quality of his efforts, his dedication to the authority, years of service, hours of service above and beyond those normally required, are considered, Mr. Graziano's salary is simply reasonable. Bob has been the heart of WAGNN since its inception 18 years ago. He has provided the ideas, planning, organization and implementation of all the upgrades that have occurred to date."
He went on to add that some districts may have a manager with a lower base salary, but they pay their manager for overtime or provide him with a dwelling. He said, "Again, these comparisons have been distorted."
Mr. Graziano's sons, Chris and Greg, have followed in his footsteps. When Civil Service held a test for a position of water manager, both sons stood for the test and both had the top scores. Chris works for a water company in Westchester County. Greg, who started working at the authority 11 years ago as a laborer, has come up through the ranks. A few years ago when a supervisor position became available, two qualified employees were asked if they would like to be considered for the position. Both declined, as they preferred to keep their union positions instead of switching over to management.
Mr. Causin said, "There was no preferential treatment given to Greg. He is qualified and he does a good job. He started working for the authority 11 years ago as low man on the totem pole."
Mr. Graziano will be retiring this year. The authority board members plan to promote Greg Graziano to act as provisional superintendent for a period of time until he takes the competitive exam, again under the auspices of Civil Service, to qualify as superintendent. Bob Graziano will serve as a consultant during this interim time. The total cost of the acting superintendent's salary and the consultant position will not exceed Mr. Graziano's current salary of $177,414.
A water manager who has now moved on to work in private industry commented that finding qualified water managers is difficult. He said, "After you pump up the water, you must know what to do with it. You must be knowledgeable in water chemistry, electrical systems, mechanical systems, facile with computer systems, able to manage staff, cope with increasing government regulations and work with your board of directors. It's hard to find qualified people."
Chairperson Michael Kalnick says, "Our mission has always been to provide the best quality of water and plan for our future needs at the least cost possible to our customers.
(Editor's note: For in depth information regarding the future capital projects that will be funded by the authority, please see the Dec. 21, 2007 Great Neck Record article, "Water Rate Structure to Change in 2008.")