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Patronage-driven Water Authority fails in its basic obligation to operate safely

There is no good reason for Erie County water users to subsidize a bloated patronage pit like the Erie County Water Authority, but since they are being forced to support its existence, can’t it at least operate professionally? That is to say, with the safety of its ratepayers prominently in mind?

The authority failed that basic test last week after a critical water main break exposed more than 100,000 residents to possibly contaminated water. Authority leaders knew about the potential danger by 3 a.m. Thursday, but offered no warning to their users for at least another three hours, by which time many residents were out of bed, showering, making coffee and brushing their teeth – ingesting water that health officials were warning needed to be boiled for at least one minute.

The details of the breakdown are uncertain at this point, but the person with the authority’s public relations contract, Michael Caputo, is himself a prominent political operative who was attending the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. He says the account executive who oversees the Water Authority account sent out a press release notifying users of the boiled water advisory within an hour of being notified.

The authority is a 20th century operation in a world of 21st century expectations and technology. With social media, an alarm can be sent out within moments, yet the authority dawdled an additional two hours before posting notices on Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, it didn’t even have those accounts until recent months.

Authorities operate in a public-private netherworld, some more efficiently than others, but all without the kind of government oversight that, in other instances, gives voters a measure of influence. If the public doesn’t like what the sheriff is doing, the sheriff can be voted out of office. City officials can be held liable for the operations of a municipal police department.

But where do voters turn when the problem is a public authority? To varying degrees, that’s a problem in all authorities, whether they deal in electrical power, public transportation, highways, bridges, dormitories, ports or any other area of public concern.

But even in that context, the Erie County Water Authority is a special case. First of all, its mission is water, which is essential to life and whose contamination can cause a range of illness and, in extreme cases, death. For that reason, alone, it requires competent, professional management.

But that appears to be of little concern to the politicians who use the authority as a place to help their friends make lots of money. As a story in Friday’s editions of The News showed, 19 of the authority’s executives earn more than $100,0000 a year.

Last year, the Republican majority on the Water Authority Board of Commissioners hired a politically connected Republican lawyer from Albany with no experience in public works. He was given a salary of more than $132,000 a year, succeeding a lawyer with no relevant experience who had been hired by Democrats.

Adding insult, the authority this year rased its rates for users and increased its quarterly “infrastructure charge,” which was imposed a few years ago in lieu of a rate increase. Now the well-paid friends of politicians have two ways to gouge their users while failing to notify them promptly that the water coming out of their taps could make them sick.

The Water Authority is, in a word, a sewer – for politics, for professional administration, for efficiency. It should be abolished. But it won’t be. The politicians need a place to put their friends.

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