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Editorial: Abolish the Water Authority

Eliminate the Erie County Water Authority. Turn off and cap the political spigot that has flowed – no gushed – for decades as leaders of both parties have rewarded generous donors with seats on the board and in the executive’s office.

State lawmakers should free ratepayers forced to pony up for this patronage pit. Those same suffering ratepayers recently got slapped with one of the biggest and costliest insults in memory, when Republicans offered their handpicked – and unqualified – executive a golden parachute that would pay up to $400,000 if Democrats oust him from the job.

The political party that controls the County Legislature controls the patronage jobs, which can be lucrative: $22,000 a year for the part-time commissioner’s position. Meanwhile, the authority’s executive director, Earl L. Jann Jr., rakes in $153,600 a year and keeps that billowing golden parachute as a nice backstop.

This is as much a state problem as it is a county or agency one. New York created the Water Authority; it must now abolish it. It is time to release county residents from this politically entrenched – and, in fact, corrupt – organization. Let the disruption begin.

County Legislator Thomas A. Loughran of Amherst, a Democrat, has suggested naming a panel of experts to determine the possibility of ending the authority’s status as an independent agency and folding it into county government, as called for in the state law that created the agency nearly 70 years ago. That’s what should happen.

He then introduced a measure to stall, by 90 days, the naming of a new Water Authority commissioner by Democrats who now represent a majority in the County Legislature. Meanwhile, the panel of experts could go to work.

The idea has buy-in. Republican Legislator Edward A. Rath III of Amherst suggested a similar study and he also later endorsed the moratorium. The moratorium could be imposed despite Democrats’ slim 6-5 lead over Republicans, as explained in a recent News story, if the Republican bloc unites with Loughran in the coming days.

Republicans have something to gain. With Democrats blocked from installing their new commissioner to replace a Republican whose term expires soon the Water Authority would remain under Republican control. Waiting in the wings, Democrat Mark S. Carney of Amherst who in his public job interview on Thursday promised county lawmakers that he will make decisions with ratepayers, not party leaders, in mind. It might be a first.

Three candidates for this year’s opening on the commission also took turns Thursday answering questions posed by a Legislature committee. But the odds favor Carney, according to several sources who spoke to a News reporter. Carney, an attorney for 32 years, has donated roughly $25,000 to Democratic Party headquarters over the past five years.

Of course he did. Hence, the problem.

The Water Authority is supposed to serve its 550,000 customers in Buffalo’s suburbs. Instead it has served the political parties. Democrats have feasted at this trough as much as Republicans.

But the Water Authority is big business. Its annual budget is $73 million. Its product is critical for health and continued vitality of its customers. It requires professional management. What it got was Jann, a former town supervisor and Republican donor whose only relevant experience was service an authority commissioner.

Consider an similar appointment: When Buffalo Police needed a new commissioner, Mayor Byron W. Brown didn’t promote a pol with no qualifications as commissioner; he named a professional with the expertise to do the job. Why should ratepayers of the Water Authority be asked to tolerate any less?

State lawmakers should get on this right away. This is their responsibility. They should serve the interests of their constituents in a bipartisan fashion by turning the Water Authority in to a county department requiring professional management. What’s the downside?

Drain the swamp.

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