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Suffolk County water contract presented — West Neck Water District needs more info

Tuesday’s review of the proposed 40-year contract between the West Neck Water District and Suffolk County Water Authority answered questions and raised others that must be resolved next month.

The contract draft requires that the Water District bear $1.7 million in costs for improvements to its system before the County takes over management. Work in excess of that amount would be borne by the utility company.

But meeting bond payments necessary to pay for those improvements and management fees to the County could result in a 201% increase in what Water District customers have been paying.

That projected increase is not firm yet, awaiting further number crunching by Deputy Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams. Water District customer Lori Raymond told the Town Board and the Water District Board at a work session Tuesday that many served by the district have little knowledge of the increase.

Some will be challenged to come up with the money to cover the debt. She said better communication with customers is vital.

Standing behind the Water District is Shelter Island Town, which could be saddled with bond payments, at least until customers could pay back the money, Supervisor Gerry Siller said. At the same time, he noted, West Neck Water has always been self-sufficient during its 25-year lease.

The Town can’t bail out individual customers, but could become responsible for bond payments, at least until money could be recovered from ratepayers. The work meant to be covered by the bond was outlined by the West Neck Water Board before it started its negotiations with SCWA.

If the work exceeds $1.7 million, “that’s on their dime,” Town Engineer Joe Finora said about SCWA.

As for bailing out individual customers, Water District Board member Lisa Shaw said in the past it has negotiated with people who were burdened by water bills. Generally, a payment plan was able to be worked out, or in the worst case, water service could be shut off. With the pandemic, shutting off water is prohibited, Ms. Shaw said.

Another issue for the Town is that if SCWA takes over management of the system, its rules and regulations supersede town regulations.

Water Advisory Committee member Andrew Chapman, who has negotiated many contracts with utility companies, said the contract should include a clause that if new contaminants are discovered that need to be treated, it should be at the expense of SCWA.

Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr. said another step is to clarify that SCWA can’t simply locate wells outside of the water district without approval of sites from the Town Board. Concern is that the wording doesn’t make that clear.

There are also concerns about what costs could be associated with terminating a contract.

Ms. Shaw said she will be compiling a new list of questions and working with the Town Board, Mr. Finora and SCWA officials to resolve them quickly. Anyone who has questions should email them to Ms. Shaw at l[email protected].