Public authorities are valuable assets to the state, assuming they are focused on their mission, transparent in their operations and accountable to the public they are meant to serve.
Too often, though, their quasi-private status and lack of oversight leads them into trouble. Such is the case with the Erie County Water Authority, which identified a critical need three years ago and then failed to meet it. That October's surprise blizzard didn't exact a stiffer penalty than it did was, in good part, a matter of luck.
The problem, as detailed in a Buffalo News story last week, is that when the Oct. 12 storm hit, the Water Authority had no backup generator at the Sturgeon Point treatment plant in Evans. The risk to public health was high, as hundreds of thousands of residents were told to boil water and firefighters worried about a loss of water pressure.
But authority leaders had ample warning after the massive power failure that hit much of the Eastern United States and Ontario in August 2003. Indeed, the authority noted the possibility for a "catastrophic" result if power failed at one of the two treatment plants or a major distribution facility for an extended period.
Nothing of substance was done. Although the board is sitting on a $25 million reserve, it limited its action to directing a high-paid lobbyist to try to wheedle $6 million out of the federal government. It didn't work.
The authority's executive director, Robert A. Mendez, says he is reluctant to spend the reserves on electrical backup when much of the threat traces to the electricity industry's failure to invest in its own infrastructure. Psychologists call that "projecting."
Mendez is right about the power industry, but understanding that to be a fact, and comprehending the potential for catastrophe as a result of that fact, he and the authority board were duty-bound to protect their infrastructure. If you need electricity to avoid a catastrophe, you'd better make good and sure you're going to have it.
The authority is belatedly moving ahead on a backup plan. Installation of generators at Sturgeon Point will begin in 2008, Mendez said, as part of a five-year, $100 million improvement program.
That's good, but it's hard to see why two large power failures were needed to prompt action, unless it's for the same reason that state officials have finally begun scrutinizing the detached and unaccountable practices of many of the state's free-wheeling public authorities.