By Rebecca Martin
I received an ARTICLE from a Syracuse paper that’s been forwarded around locally this week where Governor Cuomo was reported to say to Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner that the State has “no plans to send millions of dollars to Syracuse or other upstate cities to fix leaky aging water systems” among other things that were not so pleasant.
Given that one of those responsible for sharing the article was Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley – who appears to believe that there isn’t any other possible alternative to our water infrastructure woes other than to privatize them by handing over a portion of the repair work to a company like Niagara Bottling – I had to investigate.
Upon a little research, I have learned that Syracuse Mayor Miner and Governor Cuomo have a longstanding strained relationship. Minor was once appointed to the State’s Democratic Party as a co-chair by Cuomo in May of 2012 only to resign shortly after in April of 2014. “The relationship between Cuomo and Miner has been strained at times, with the two butting heads on several issues including State aid to cities. Minor also authored an article in the New York Times (on February 13th, 2013) criticizing Cuomo’s proposal to let municipalities borrow money to off-set pension costs.”
Also of note, is that their relationship goes way back as Miner having worked for Cuomo’s father when he was Governor.
Why is this important?
The Daily Freeman did a piece on the article recently. When asked my reaction to it, my first response was to say that the public should better understand the context in what they were reading. Cuomo’s reported quotes seemed specific to the Mayor and Syracuse. Was there a conflict between the two elected officials or was this really a statement on policy regarding state funding for water infrastructure in communities like ours?
My initial observation appeared to be correct from what I learned about Governor Cuomo and Mayor Minor. There was more to this then what met the eye.
My choice of action? To place aside what appears to be a bullying attempt by the local proponents of the Niagara Bottling proposal – which is of no use to the public – and instead, continue my efforts to become better educated on the needs and solutions in Kingston and our region.
Here are three suggestions worth time and consideration in Kingston.
1. The City of Kingston’s Water Department creates Capitol Improvement Plans (CIP) of only 4-5 years in length.
Those in favor of the Niagara Bottling proposal are hoping that they might be able to save us when Niagara PAYS ONLY SOME of a five year capitol improvement plan that totals an approximate $18 million dollars of Kingston’s water infrastructure costs (a jump of $2 million dollars since September of 2014).
But how about the rest?
Be reminded that the current improvements listed recently include some that are mandated by the DEC. Niagara’s incremental influx over at least ten years (I am using a 10 year time period based on the number of years they would receive tax abatements if they were to be approved into the StartUp NY program) wouldn’t include improvements to the Cooper Lake Dam which is a part of this figure. A fix that our Water Department has known about since 2009 as I understand it. We are only addressing that now? How come?
What about long term planning? What exactly are we looking at here – and is there a 10, 20, 30 year plan (or whatever is the professional standard to have a long view) that allows us to look at our water infrastructure needs as an entire system? It seems only logical that we would need a long range plan so that we can not only bite off small pieces along the way, but to also be in line for any future local, state and federal funding that becomes available.
After potentially selling 25% of our water resources to Niagara Bottling, what are we planning to sell to keep water prices low for users yet cover future infrastructure costs? It appears to me that our elected and appointed officials are placing us in the precarious position to turn to privatization and that’s not acceptable.
2. Conservation pricing. The Kingston Water Department does the opposite and charges users more who use less and less who use more.
Kingston’s current water rates are organized using an antiquated model by charging those who use the least the most and those who use the most the least. In this day and age, where water is scarce in many parts of the country, we should be applying something called ‘Conservation Pricing’ here at home. Not only are we encouraging users to not conserve today, we are also most probably missing out on large revenues over time that could be used to fix ailing water infrastructure.
People like throwing around that we are ‘water rich’ in NYS. But that doesn’t mean that we will always be, or that the 1% of water (which is the percentage that we can actually drink worldwide) will always be clean for us here.
When you have ample amounts of anything, you should not only be saving it but also mindful in setting a good example for our young community leaders who will one day be running our city to be thinking in these terms.
There is so much good reading out there on Conservation Water Pricing and I encourage you to do a little research to read up on it. We can do a longer piece on that at another time, too, if that would be helpful.
3. Make the Water Department a part of City Government.
In 1895 when the Kingston Water Department was created it was made independent to keep politics out of water.
When the Kingston Water Board of Commissioners feels as though they have the exclusive right to sell our water and infrastructure to a company like Niagara Bottling – paid for by users and the public for over 100 years – how does that serve the publics interest today or for the future?
Additionally, our Mayor has the sole discretion to appoint members to the Water Board Commission. If the potential for politics doesn’t exist there, I don’t know what does. Furthermore, our council has the authority to approve any water infrastructure improvements needed. Once more, the potential for politics.
In the Kingston City Charter, Water Commissioner terms are five years in length and it looks to be at a maximum. We haven’t been able to find any information in the Charter or in Water Department By-Laws (which apparently don’t exist) that allow for an extension of that five years and yet, the chair of the Water Board of Commissioners has served since 1981. Furthermore, there isn’t a Water board Commissioner that has served for less then one term already.
What KingstonCitizens.org is going to explore this spring are steps to create a referendum in November 2015 that would bring an opportunity for the public to vote on whether or not it wants to keep the Water Department independent.
If we have nothing really to gain for our Water Department to be independent outside of a decision to keep politics out of water from 135 year ago – long before there was bottled water companies and discussions to privatize water infrastructure – then we suggest it’s time for a change.
Insist on better municipal water management and a comprehensive study of Kingston’s water infrastructure needs. Don’t turn over 100 + years of a public investment over to private interests. We insist on finding creative solutions to solve decades of deferred maintenance.