Suffolk County voters to get last word on new sewers, septic systems

Suffolk voters will be asked in November to increase the sales tax on the construction of new sewers and septic tanks by one-eighth of a percentage point, a measure passed by the Suffolk Legislature on Tuesday.

Representatives voted 15-2 to add the referendum to the November 5 general election. Only two representatives voted against: Representative Leslie Kennedy (Republican of Nesconset) and Representative Rob Trotta (Republican of Fort Salonga). Representative Trish Bergin (Republican of East Islip) was absent.

For the referendum to be placed on the ballot, Suffolk County Executive Edward P. Romaine must still sign the bill. He is expected to do so on July 8, spokesman Mike Martino said.

“Today we took another important step to give voters the opportunity to support this measure that will help protect our environment and improve water quality for generations to come,” Romaine said in a statement after the vote.

The increase in sales tax revenue – which is equivalent to 12.5 cents on a $100 purchase – will provide approximately $4 billion over 50 years to implement the county's watershed wastewater plan.

If approved, Suffolk would receive between $50 million and $55 million annually in additional revenue to expand sewer systems across the county and replace aging septic tanks, officials said. The new high-tech systems are designed to eliminate nitrogen and other pollutants that enter the water supply and encourage harmful algae growth. The county calls the high-tech systems “on-site innovative/alternative wastewater treatment systems.”

The legislature's approval came after a two-year political battle and gives Suffolk the funding that county officials say will curb widespread nitrogen pollution and protect Long Island's water quality. More than 75 percent of Suffolk residents are connected to outdated septic tanks that release nitrogen into Suffolk's water supply, which can feed algae and lead to toxic algal blooms.

Chairman Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said before the vote that lawmakers and staff “put our heads together and came up with a solution … we walked around the political landmines and tried to figure out how to get this done, and it wasn't easy. And there were some dark days.”

McCaffrey added, “We all agreed that we needed to improve water quality here on Long Island. And the only way to do that was to find a sustainable source of revenue that didn't negatively impact local residents.”

Legislator Rebecca Sanin (D-Huntington Station) said the increase would be a “modest addition” to the current sales tax.

“This is a small price to pay for the immense benefits it will bring to our water quality, our public health and our local economy,” Sanin said.

Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, had proposed a similar bill for 2023, but Republicans, who hold the majority in the House, refused to pass the bill because his successor, Romaine, a Republican, was running for executive office.

Democrats accused Republican lawmakers of blocking a key environmental initiative in an election year and trying to deny Bellone a victory in his final months in office. Republicans denied those allegations.

Republicans said the earlier proposal allocated too high a share of the funding stream – 75% – to the high-tech septic tanks and too low a share – 25% – to sewer systems. They say the current measure splits funding evenly between sewer systems and the more modern septic systems.

Trotta and Kennedy, the lawmakers who opposed the bill, said the county should have found other ways to finance new sewers and high-tech systems. Both said they had fought in the past against the county diverting $198 million from a special sewer fund to finance county operations, in part to prevent layoffs and service cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Trotta said tax increases should be approved by county representatives, not voters.

“People will just say, 'Oh, clean water, I'll vote for that,'” he said. “If we're really for clean water, why don't we vote for a tax increase in '18? Because I guarantee you the outcome would be very different.”

Kennedy said she had been inundated with calls from angry citizens protesting the sales tax increase.

“My people have said, 'Please don't raise taxes.' I have people who are struggling to pay for their groceries,” Kennedy said before voting no. “I have people who are struggling to pay for their medicine. I have a lot of seniors and I do what my people ask.”

Scott Eidler covers Nassau County government and politics for Newsday. Scott joined Newsday in 2012 and previously covered local government and education.

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