East Hampton Examines Its Waste; Gets to the Bottom of Tax Bill Fracas

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East Hampton is debating what to do about failing cesspools and its inefficient scavenger waste plant.

As Long Island’s deepening nitrate-in-the-water crisis continues, East Hampton Town is considering measures that could help both the town’s bottom line and homeowners with aging septic systems.

The town hired Pio Lombardo of Lombardo Associates last June to perform a comprehensive analysis of the town’s scavenger waste facility (where cesspool trucks bring their effluent for delivery to points west) and of aging septic systems townwide.

Mr. Lombardo’s work was quickly caught up at the time in the partisan quagmire on the former town board. This Tuesday, with a new administration in office, he presented the findings of his study to a board that was far more receptive to his ideas.

Mr. Lombardo said the scavenger waste plant on Springs-Fireplace Road, near the town’s landfill, is operating at a $600,000-per-year loss because the town is subsidizing the cost to cesspool companies in order to be competitive with other scavenger waste plants on Long Island.

If the plant is closed, he said, that money could be used to help homeowners upgrade their septic systems, since the number one source of waste at the scavenger waste site is failing septic systems.

East Hampton charges 13.5 cents per gallon of wastewater it receives, while Riverhead had charged 9.9 cents per gallon but is planning to raise their fee to 10.9 cents per gallon, said Mr. Lombardo. Bergen Point in Babylon, where much of the waste from the East End is eventually trucked, charges 6.2 cents per gallon.

Mr. Lombardo said cesspool company owners he’s spoken with in East Hampton said if they figure their transportation costs into the equation, their costs remain about the same regardless of where they bring their waste, despite the difference in prices between the three locations.

Mr. Lombardo said East Hampton cesspool companies could absorb the cost of up to 16 cents per gallon, but upgrading the scavenger waste plant would cost about $5 million to construct and $1 million per year to operate. He said prices would then need to be raised to at least 17 cents per gallon for the plant to break even.

He also added that there could be serious environmental concerns with building a new plant, since it is located at the top of the South Fork’s watershed. Contaminated water that can leach through the ground there, he said, stays in the aquifer for decades as it slowly percolates north and south to the Peconic Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

“Property owners and businesses are spending over a million dollars a year for excess pumping due to malfunctioning septic systems,” he said. “We think the investments to correct malfunctioning systems is going to have a good payback.”

Mr. Lombardo added that savings from closing the plant could be used for surface water quality, such as in Lake Montauk.

Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell mused that the money would also be well spent to pay down the town’s debt.

“Financially, there’s a lot at stake here, and the sooner the town board makes a decision, the better,” he said. “Six hundred thousand dollars per year of savings, over ten years, is $6 million. That would support almost $8 million in debt service payment.”

“We are where we are today becaus to this point the town has not made a decision about what to do going forward,” he added. “As a result, that operation has become very inefficient and very wasteful. ..We need to broaden the financial discussion as to whether the facility should be open or closed, and should savings be reinvested to protect the entire town.”

“This is a wonderful opportunity to redirect funding from what in many respects is a black hole,” agreed Mr. Lombardo.

More information on Mr. Lombardo’s study is available online here.

Tax Fracas was a Nightmare

East Hampton Chief Internal Auditor Charlene Kagel told the board a fascinating tale that seemed straight out of East Hampton’s horrid financial past, of blank signed checks from homeowners sitting in the safe in the tax receivers office for months, mail that was unopened for two weeks in the midst of tax season, and a $3.8 million check from a mortgage company clearinghouse to pay East Hampton residents’ tax bills that lay unopened in a FedEx envelope in the tax receiver’s office.

And, also, a computer glitch in the town’s Govern software program caused it to not print out 5,000 of the town’s 23,000 tax bills, leading to “thousands of phone calls and hundreds of emails” from confused homeowners wanting to know how to pay their taxes.

The missing tax bills were a crisis Mr. Cantwell was faced with within days of taking office in early January, when the town agreed to extend the deadline to pay the tax bills from Jan. 10 to Jan. 31 and removed tax receiver Monica Rottach from her position, asking accountant Neide Valeira to step in and fix the mess.

Ms. Kagel said there were several personnel issues relating to the practices in the tax receivers’ office that would be discussed in executive session, but in her public presentation pointed to serious procedural flaws in the way the office had been run that had not been fixed, despite her insistence in the past that they be fixed.

She said that the office had had a longstanding practice of letting homeowners who leave town for the winter bring in blank signed checks in the fall, which were put in the department’s safe and used to pay taxes once their bills were ready.

“It’s a very risky situation to have signed, blank checks sitting in an office,” she said.

Ms. Kagel said the missing tax bills appeared to have been due to a batch printing reset that had been done in the Govern software system, which caused employees in the tax receiver’s office to print out just 800 tax bills in a batch when they thought they were printing out 1,000 bills. That batch reset was exacerbated in later batches to the point where the final batch, which had been programmed to print 1,000 bills, only printed out 300 bills.

Ms. Kagel said the town’s bulk and in-house postage records should have made clear to observant staff members that only 17,000 of the town’s 23,000 tax bills were mailed.

“It’s been corrected,” she said of the computer glitch.

Mr. Cantwell made a point of thanking Ms. Valeria, who was at the meeting, for stepping up to sort out the mess, working six or seven days per week until the problems were fixed.

“Public employees don’t often get the recognition and acknowledgement they deserve,” he said. “You came in and said ‘I can take this on.’ I just want to applaud you and thank you for your effort.”

“I just did the best I could,” said Ms. Valeria. “Anything you ask, I’ll always do the best I can.”

Control Tower to Open in May

East Hampton Airport Manager Jim Brundige told the town board Tuesday morning that Robinson Aviation, which manages the town’s seasonal airport control tower, plans to begin training air traffic control officers in early May and have the tower operational by the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.

Mr. Brundige said last year the tower was open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., but the number of flights into the airport significantly decreased after 8 p.m. He plans this year to close the control tower at 8 p.m. It will be staffed with one person on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and at least three people on Thursday, Friday and Sunday evenings.

 

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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