Water, water everywhere - but not a drop to drink. At least not straight from the tap.
As nearly a quarter-million suburbanites read this, the water flowing from their faucets is actually safe to drink. I just hope nobody imbibed the unnatural flavoring in the three hours between the county Water Authority learning it had dirty water early Thursday to when it alerted the media. Two hours later, it finally tapped into social media.
In the infamous annals of Water Authority outrages, the Water-less-gate Scandal barely cracks the Top Five. It’s not as bad as paying more, at the edge of Lake Erie, for water than folks in desert-dry Phoenix. Or the post-October Storm near-disaster caused by a lack of backup generators. Or then-county Democratic party boss Len Lenihan filling a ECWA commissioner seat with a Lackawanna jeweler whose only water-based experience was drinking it. Or...well, you get the idea.
None of which makes this week’s “dirty water” any easier to swallow.
A busted pipe in Amherst cut or weakened water flow to some quarter-million people from Williamsville to Cheektowaga. It upped the odds for harmful microbes, causing anything from diarrhea to way worse in children or old folks. It was a boon for bottled water sales and sharpened people’s water-boiling skills.
Pipes burst, it happens. What shouldn’t happen is a 3-hour delay in spreading the dirty-water word.
The screw-up circles back to the Water Authority’s long-standing secondary – politicians would say primary – mission: Providing jobs to party faithful, rewarding political donors with contracts and ensuring a soft landing for ex-elected officials. All, of course, at taxpayer expense.
Among the plums is PR work, handed out – since Republicans control the county legislature – to the firm of GOP political operative Michael Caputo. A patronage-pure publicist might not have done a better job this week of crisis-management, but the episode wouldn’t have smelled like a clogged toilet.
“The PR firm screwed up,” said Kathy Konst, the ex-county lawmaker who vainly pushed for reforms. “OK, but who hired them?”
Sadly, it’s not a target-rich environment on Election Day. All of the Authority’s excess of executives are appointed. County party bosses hand-pick the three ethics-blind commissioners. County legislators – with marching orders from headquarters – affix rubber stamps. While commissioners make just $22,000 and no longer get free cars, they open the floodgates to jobs and contracts for the politically wired.
When it comes to water, they all drink the Kool-Aid. Among the victims are most of the Authority’s 235 employees, civil servants who do the work, while their bosses pull the strings.
Konst’s attempts to reverse the flow a decade ago and make the Authority part of county government amounted to a political death wish. She and fellow reformer Cindy Locklear lost party backing – no threat to the patronage pipeline goes unpunished – and were soon on the street.
“With the Water Authority, the buck stops nowhere,” said Konst, now a naturopathic health advocate in California. “That’s the problem, you can’t hold anyone accountable.”
This week’s 3-hour info lag was a reminder that, with the Water Authority, you get less than what you pay for. Suburban taxpayers last year swallowed a 3.9 percent rate hike atop a 25% boost in ‘infrastructure charge’ – a polite way of saying “rate hike.”
“Somebody came up with ‘infrastructure charge’ as a marketing ploy,” confirmed a source familiar with the Authority’s rotten pipeline. “People would be more likely to accept it.”
While the taxpayers’ cup runneth over, the Authority is so top-heavy it wouldn’t float in the private sector.
As reported by my News colleagues, 19 Water Authority executives annually pocket more than $100,000. Among the over-compensated is ex-county legislator Terrence McCracken ($112,315), director of employee relations. Not to be confused with Mike Lewkowicz ($105,545), coordinator of employee relations. Or Dan NeMoyer ($115,475), director of Human Resources. If it sounds like three guys do the same job, well, they do.
NeMoyer is from a well-known political family connected to operative Steve Pigeon, recently indicted on nine bribery-related felony charges. Lewkowicz has ties to Amherst Democrats. The insider, “they found something for” McCracken “after he got voted out [of office].”
Presumably the sting of losing was salved by a pay boost of $69,727 over his legislator salary.
At least McCracken merely lost an election. Ex-Cheektowaga councilman Charlie Markel parachuted into a $45,250 water utility job two years ago after a conviction for unemployment insurance fraud.
Should any lawsuits arise from those sickened by this week’s dirty water, the water authority’s surplus of lawyers could reach out to the bill-by-the-hour senior attorney Jim Domagalski, who is – wait for it – the ex-Republican county chairman.
The endless stream of outrages revives occasional calls for the Authority to be folded into county government, like the highway department. It would slow the patronage flow, save tax dollars and force officials to answer on Election Day. Sounds like a plan.
The problem is the lever is in the hands of county legislators, and they all drink from the well.
“It was for the greater good,” said Konst of her failed attempt to sanitize the Water Authority. “You saw where it got me.”
A martyr to the cause. I’ll drink to that.
Bottled water, of course.