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Suffolk County Water Authority to run West Neck Water District: Supervisor says it had to be done; two district board members resign

The Town Board announced it has turned over management of the West Neck Water District to the Suffolk County Water Authority, paying SCWA $30,000 for a six-month contract. This takes control out of the hands of the all-volunteer teams that have managed the district for more than 40 years.

Those on the water district’s board of directors who the Reporter spoke with charged the Town Board with not being transparent about the decision, of not including them in discussions on a potential management change, and presenting them with a fait accompli.

Two members of the water district’s board, Lori Beard Raymond and Miles Wilson, have resigned. Ms. Beard Raymond didn’t answer a request for comment and Mr. Wilson couldn’t be reached.

Supervisor Gerry Siller said the charges lodged against him and the Town Board, are “not true.” He said the change was discussed and members “fully understood” the direction the Town Board was going.

Members of the water district’s board that the Reporter spoke with have said that the move to cede management to SCWA — an independent public-benefit corporation unrelated to Suffolk County government — might be a good move for the more than 60 residential and seven commercial customers who receive their water from the district, but those being served were never given a chance to contribute to the discussion.

John Hallman, who had operated the Water District for more than 25 years, resigned from that post earlier this month. Water District board member Lisa Shaw said a plan by the board had been in place to replace Mr. Hallman as operator, but that had been rejected out of hand.

A presentation to the Town Board on July 7 was made by Ms. Beard Raymond and Ms. Shaw on the need for a bond that likely will total $1.5 million to cover costs associated with upgrading the system. Ms. Beard Raymond told the Town Board that the upcoming changes are “essential” to providing reliable, potable water to its customers.

The Town Board was in favor of the request, and after the meeting, Ms. Beard Raymond and Ms. Shaw were told of the decision to ask SCWA to take over.

In a letter to all West Neck Water district customers, Mr. Siller wrote that, after Mr. Hallman’s resignation, the town needed to “replace him immediately.” The options the Town Board faced were to either hire someone to be put on the town payroll, as opposed to hiring an outside contractor, which Mr. Hallman had been.

Mr. Siller wrote that the person the water district’s board had recommended to take over from Mr. Hallman “was not an Island resident, would have to travel here daily, and did not want to work weekends. We would have to hire a second person to cover the district on weekends. We would also have to incur all expenses for chemicals and testing.”

The Town Board then decided to agree to the six-month contract with SCWA, which, the supervisor wrote “is already on the Island seven days a week operating the Dering Harbor Village Water System. The agreement covers everything Mr. Hallman did, plus includes chemicals, testing and repairs up to $2,500 per incident.

In a letter to the water district’s customers, Town Engineer Joseph Finora wrote to the district’s customers stating: “At this time, no action is required from water customers. Water service and operations will continue uninterrupted during the transition and billing will continue to be managed and administered by the town. Please make note of the new emergency hotline number (631-665-0663) which has also been posted to the West Neck Water page of the town website (shelterislandtown.us/west-neck-water).”

Ms. Shaw, who has worked for the district for 18 years said she and Ms. Beard Raymond, who has 25 years of service, were shocked at the sudden turn of events. They were joined by water district members Robert Lipsyte and Wendy Turgeon in being cut out, they said, of the decision-making process.

Mr. Siller said he “fully understands” their feelings, especially Ms. Shaw’s and Ms. Beard Raymond’s reactions. “Lori and Lisa ran the system and have a sense of ownership for their hard work,” he said. 

Former Town Engineer John Cronin said SCWA managing the water district was the proper move. Added to Mr. Hallman’s resignation, “there were way too many issues going on that needed an immediate fix.” Capital improvements will “be addressed by the bond,” Mr. Cronin said. “But we’re trying to operate a public water supply entity and we’re doing it with well-meaning volunteers.” In addition, Mr. Cronin said, West Neck Water district is one of the most expensive water suppliers on Long Island.

In the past, town administrations “deferred to the district to do what was necessary, but problems began to mount, and the current administration saw an opportunity to do the right thing and get West Neck Water running very much like the Village of Dering Harbor is now,” Mr. Cronin said. “People are satisfied with the service and have seen rates coming down.” In the end, Mr. Cronin said, people must realize that “the West Neck Water District is a town entity, not their entity.”

Mr. Lipsyte said there are still too many unanswered questions that the Town Board has not addressed. “Will this move come with a coherent water policy? Or a continuation of a lack of transparency?” he asked.

Ms. Shaw urged anyone interested in the situation to attend the next meeting of the West Neck Water District on Saturday, July 31 at 9 a.m. in the Town Hall meeting room.