After a plan to put a referendum before voters for an eighth of a percent sales tax to fund septic improvement initiatives was stymied by Republicans in the Suffolk County Legislature last summer, new County Executive Ed Romaine unveiled a new tax plan this week that will provide more funding to sewers than on-site septic systems.

There are estimated to be about 380,000 on-site septic systems in Suffolk County, many of which are antiquated and leach contaminants into the aquifers that are the sole source of Long Island’s drinking water. Those contaminants also eventually reach open water bodies, where the county’s Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan has found that nitrogen from urine is contributing to the increase in harmful algae blooms, which damage both ecosystems and shellfish fisheries.

Republicans in the legislature said last year that they believed more of the money raised through the program should be used to fund sewers instead of upgrades to on-site septic systems. On-site systems are the primary type of septic system on the East End, while sewers are both more common and can accommodate the scale of development in western Suffolk.

The new plan, unveiled by Mr. Romaine, a Republican, on Feb. 5, would split funding 50/50 between sewers and on-site septic systems. Last year’s proposal would have dedicated 75 percent to on-site systems and 25 percent to sewers.

Environmental advocates argued last summer that on-site septic systems would be more cost effective — costing an average of $25,000 per home compared with the $100,000 per home cost of sewers, and that it would be essential to hold a referendum quickly so the money raised could be leveraged for grant funding from the $1.2 trillion 2021 federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the $4 billion 2022 New York Environmental Bond Act.

The change in the program announced this week also requires new state enabling legislation, which was introduced by East End State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and State Senator Monica Martinez on Feb. 1 and referred to the Assembly and Senate’s Committees on Local Government.

If the state enabling legislation is passed and the funding approved by voters in a referendum on this November’s ballot, the new sales tax would be in effect through 2060. The legislation would also give the county the authority to form a county-wide wastewater management district, consolidating 27 existing sewer districts with currently unsewered areas of the county.

The money would be spent to advance the hybrid onsite advanced septic and sewer approach outlined in the 2020 Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, which identified 209,000 of the 380,000 septic systems as being in “environmentally sensitive areas which could benefit from nitrogen-reducing technologies,” and laid out a comprehensive plan to improve both onsite septic systems and sewers over the next 50 years.

The legislation would also extend the county’s existing quarter percent sales tax for drinking water protection from 2030 to 2060.

“I thank Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey, Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Senator Monica Martinez all of our environmental and labor leaders for their work to get us to this day,” said Mr. Romaine as he announced the new legislation. “Today we begin rewriting the environmental history of this great county.”

“We now go to the people so their voices will be heard,” he added. “They will have the chance to say yes or no.”

Labor and environmental leaders also joined the County Executive’s press conference.

“For too long, our region has been burdened by outdated systems,” said Marc Herbst, Executive Director of the Long Island Contractors Association. “This new deal will infuse $8 to $12 billion into the regional economy over the next three decades and is a critical step in modernizing our infrastructure and ensuring our residents have access to clean drinking water.”

“The Nature Conservancy is thrilled that a landmark agreement has been reached to restore clean water to Suffolk County,” said Kevin McDonald, policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy in New York, who has spent more than seven years lobbying the state legislature on behalf of putting this referendum on the ballot. “Clean water is essential for public health, recreation, and quality of life. The Suffolk County Water Quality Restoration Act will enable us to modernize wastewater infrastructure and repair local bays and harbors.”

“Suffolk County’s future is dependent upon our ability to successfully manage our wastewater. We know how to do it, but we need the funding!” said Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “Establishing a reliable funding mechanism is imperative to replace antiquated septic and cesspool systems as well as aging sewer infrastructure. This program will change our future’s outlook from bleak to bright.”


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Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she 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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