The public meeting on critical sewage decisions for much of the peninsula covered a potent mix of livewire issues, namely taxes, environmental protection, local control, competency and transparency in governance and... the kitchen sink. The only thing that was not up for dispute among the sewage experts was: Don't pour grease down the kitchen sink.
Town of North Hempstead Jon Kaiman leads discussion of the issues of sewage treatment at public meeting.
Approximately 150 residents attended the meeting called by Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman to address the sewage dilemma that faces the town and some of the villages. This meeting was advertised by the town in a large postcard that was sent to all residents, whether affected or not, as the meeting where the facts and figures of all alternatives would be revealed. One combined and upgraded plant, two upgraded plants or diversion to Cedar Creek were the stated choices in the mailer. During the meeting, a dizzying host of cost estimates were tossed into the air, but there was no agreement on the veracity of the numbers. Any hopes of getting clear information that evening for rational decision-making went down the drain. Supervisor Kaiman vowed to get all the professionals in a room together, implying that he would lock them in until they could thrash out the numbers and come to some agreements.
Christopher Murphy, the superintendent of the Water Pollution Control District, stated that if the two current plants upgraded and merged, the average cost to district residents would be an $80 increase yearly. He said that because the village plant is smaller, if it merged with the district, the economy of scale would factor in and residents served by the village would see an average reduction in their sewer taxes by $245.
Supervisor Kaiman appeared taken aback stating, "If those are the real numbers, what are we doing here?"
According to a village spokesperson, village residents may not enjoy a reduction as the estimate does not include the cost of dismantling the village's plant nor does it include the cost of paying off the current debt service.
The cost estimates for diverting to the county facility, Cedar Creek in Wantagh, also varied widely. Mr. Kaiman stated that diversion would cost between $25-30 million, but an estimating and project planning company hired by the district, Nautilus Consulting, in a detailed analysis came up with a figure of $65 million for diversion.
Keep in mind that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which strongly favors diversion because it would take 100 percent of the nitrogen output from Great Neck out of the Sound, granted a total of $18 million ($3 million for design and $15 million for actual construction) to help defray the cost of diversion only. Upgrading the plants would take 60 percent of the nitrogen out of the outflow into Manhasset Bay, which the DEC considers to be particularly vulnerable to algae blooms and water quality problems because it is rather shallow.
The combined daily average of nitrogen output from both plants is 672 pounds per day. (New York City releases 15,000 pounds of nitrogen into Long Island Sound every day. On days when there has been a particularly heavy rainstorm, the increased volume of water overpowers NYC plants causing them to release untreated sewage into the Sound.)
The Record asked the DEC regional water manager, William Spitz, after the meeting about the process of re-applying for grant money from the state to soften the cost of upgrading the plants. He answered, "Grant applications can be made when there is a call for projects. Currently, there is no call for projects, so no application can be submitted." The Albany DEC office does not know when a new date for grant applications will occur. State law prohibits grant money from being reassigned from one project to another.
Mr. Spitz also thinks that the $30 million estimate for diversion (which was adjusted for inflation) is consistent with the original estimates that were studied.
Last fall Nassau County awarded $500,000 to Malcolm Pirnie, an environmental engineering firm based in White Plains, to study the costs of consolidating sewage treatment plants. Their study of the district and village plants has never been released. The draft report, which the district asserted contained many basic errors, has evidently never been finalized.
A diversion project would mean laying piping on East Shore Road, up Northern Blvd, a right turn on Shelter Rock Road, a left turn on the south service road of the LIE continuing to the intersection of Glen Cove Road where it would meet up with existing piping to Cedar Creek. The estimated time of completing such a project is 18 months.
Water Pollution Control District commissioner Jerry Lansberg stated that the ongoing operating costs for the county facility would continue to rise. He said, "The county has taken $53 million of your tax dollars from their reserve fund and moved it into their sewer and storm water resource treatment district in 2008 and plans to use $55 million from the reserve fund to cover sewer costs for 2009." He goes on to add, " By 2011, the county will have a projected deficit of $84.6 million...and will be forced to substantially raise taxes to cover the difference." This information was taken from a county produced multi-year financial plan for sewer and storm water resources. A call to the county for clarification was not returned by press time.
County executive Tom Suozzi publicly stated at a meeting last summer that if Great Neck diverts its sewage, taxpayers would be assured of no increases in sewage taxes for the next five years. The other part of the verbal offer was that the county would take possession of property currently used for the treatment plants, which if sold, could be used to stabilize rates or as the new county lingo goes, "harmonize" rates. There are no proposals in writing from the county regarding diversion.
Matthew Millea, acting president of the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation, a public benefit corporation, was present at the meeting. The corporation provides up to a 50 percent interest rate discount to municipalities for environmental projects. Mr. Millea said, "Even a $10 million savings is a great step in lowering the debt service."
Village of Great Neck Mayor Ralph Kreitzman spoke briefly acknowledging that in this situation, the district was the "dog and because of our size, we are the tail....I am just interested in doing what will be best for all our residents, some of whom reside in the district's service area...I am interested in hearing concrete numbers too."
Village of Saddle Rock Mayor Leonard Samansky, who is also president of the Village Officials Association, urged those in charge to "get off the stick" and work out the details. He said, "All we have are generalities...all the mayors agree that we need to combine the plants."
County comptroller Howard Weitzman stated that he has never taken a position on diversion because he had never had enough information to do so and that it was not in his realm of responsibility. He did argue, however, all Nassau County residents served by the county's Sewer and Stormwater Authority are all on average paying less for sewage than Great Neck residents. In a phone conversation after the meeting, Mr. Weitzman told the Record, "The assessed value of a house has no relationship to the amount of wastewater it discharges."
Water Pollution Control District Commissioner Deena Lesser had stated that for comparison's sake assessed values from one community to another were taken into account in figuring what taxpayers were being charged for sewage service. The district asserts that its services are cheaper than the county's.
Public reaction was mixed. While one man stated that dismantling of the plants would improve the look of East Shore Road and enhance future upscale development, many speakers expressed environmental concerns and questions, lack of confidence in the county's level of response to emergencies, questioning of the county's motives and dismay at the lack of transparency in the process and confusion about the facts.
From the applause level, it appeared that many people in the audience were against diversion and any county takeover of sewer services. Longtime environmental activist from the League of Women Voters Shirley Siegel supports the district's plans to clean the wastewater to a higher standard, called in sewer circles tertiary treatment. The oxidation ditch method planned for the upgrade is considered energy efficient with low operating costs. Ms. Siegel asked the county representatives present about the proposal from Suffolk County to ship sewage to Nassau County for treatment. The county commissioner of public works, Ray Ribeiro, stated that no action has been taken on the request, but when pressed added that it had not been rejected outright.
She said, "Everything's not about money...sometimes you have to do the right thing for the environment."
Phil Franco representing the Cedar Creek Health Risk Assessment Committee, an advocacy group, warned that with all the additional hook-ups plus the future development of the Hub to the county facility, the possibility of reaching the plant's capacity was real.
Cedar Creek has a design capacity to treat 72 million gallons of wastewater per day (mgd), but averages 57 mgd. The county asserts that handling Great Neck's total 5.3 mgd would not have a major impact on their capacity.
Mr. Franco did acknowledge that staffing at Cedar Creek has improved, but he expressed skepticism that the county legislature, which would have to approve a Great Neck diversion, would have the votes to pass such a resolution. He vowed that he and many other south shore organizations would strongly protest a diversion.
Nikki Blonsky, daughter of a village plant employee, stated that she knew from experience that her father answered emergency calls in 5 to 10 minutes and expressed concern about what would happen to all the workers currently employed.
Mayor Krietzman responded that the matter of retaining jobs for employees in a consolidation was a concern and one of the many details to be negotiated.
The district serves the Villages of Saddle Rock, Thomaston, Kensington, the eastern portions of the Plaza and the Village of Great Neck, unincorporated areas and parts of Manhasset. The village plant serves the western portion of the Village of Great Neck, the Merchant Marine Academy and Saddle Rock Estates.
If the district and the village do not meet deadlines set by the DEC for reducing nitrogen output into Manhasset Bay, the state may charge penalties of up to $1.6 million for the first year.