June Column: The Future of the Water Authority

I recently travelled to New York City. While waiting for a subway train, I glanced down at the tracks. There I saw the two rails upon which the train travels and the electrified third rail which supplies power for the train’s motor. People are constantly warned to avoid touching the third rail, as they will be electrocuted.

The metaphor of the third rail has often been applied to political issues. On the national level, social security is commonly referred to as the third rail of American politics, as our elected leaders are afraid to touch it. Everyone knows it needs fixing. But nobody wants to go anywhere near it.

For many years, the reform of the Erie County Water Authority (ECWA) has been the third rail of county politics. Everyone knows there are problems. But nobody dares touch it for fear of reprisal from party leaders. Recently, however, a series of events has focused renewed attention on the authority’s operations. As a result, there is much talk of reform.

Before addressing the problems at the authority, allow me to make a few observations. First, the authority is not a county department. It is a public authority created by the state, similar to the Thruway Authority or the NFTA. It also does not service the entire county. In my legislative district, only residents in the City of Tonawanda get their water from the ECWA. Grand Island and the Town of Tonawanda have their own separate water departments. Even so, allegations of politics and patronage at the authority cast a shadow over the entire county.

In terms of its product and its service, as a customer of the ECWA I have no complaints. The water quality is good and the service is exceptional. This past winter, I marveled at the work ethic of authority’s maintenance people as they fixed a large leak on my street in frigid weather. Another positive is that the authority’s rates are among the lowest in the area.

So, then, what is the problem? To begin, there is no denying that the authority is political. Over the years, the politically well-connected have landed plum well–paid positions in the authority’s administration. A big part of the problem is that the 1949 state legislation establishing the authority injected politics into its management. It requires that no more than two of the agency’s three commissioners be of the same political party.

So now people are talking of reform. The county executive has proposed increasing the number of commissioners from three to seven. This certainly merits consideration. But we must also be open to other options. One often discussed alternative is to dissolve the authority and create a county department to administer a water district for the communities that currently rely on it. As the county executive recently noted, this can be more difficult than it seems. Questions regarding paying off authority debt, union contracts and employees’ civil service status require answers. This will take time. Still, we need to explore all options as we finally address this thorny issue.

If you have thoughts you would like to share, I would love to hear from you. I can be contacted by phone at 858-8815 or via email at kevin.hardwick@erie.gov.

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