After years of operating as a political captive, the Erie County Water Authority should either be folded into county government or privatized, former County Executive Joel A. Giambra said Tuesday in the midst of his long-shot campaign for governor.
Bringing the authority into the county's Department of Public Works won't end the awarding of patronage jobs, Giambra said. But it will make the water service more transparent and accountable.
Voters get to elect the Erie County executive, he observed. They do not get to elect the three commissioners who govern the Water Authority. Suburban sewer systems are run by a county department, he added. There is no reason the county couldn't run the water system.
Privatizing water service in Erie County's suburbs could work, too, just like it does in the City of Buffalo, Giambra said. While the city has a government-created "Water Board," an outside company makes the delivery system function.
The state law that created the Erie County Water Authority in 1949 called for the public benefit corporation to be absorbed by county government after 12 years. That never happened, perhaps because the law's political overtones made the agency too useful to the two major parties, Giambra said.
The law lets the county's Republican and Democratic leaders – acting through the County Legislature – take turns appointing Water Authority commissioners. The party in control of the Legislature names two of the three members and, as a result, dispenses most of the patronage jobs and vendor contracts.
"It's obvious the statute that designed the Water Authority designed it to be a very political structure, in the way it promulgated the appointment process," Giambra said. "It allows the Democrats and Republicans to take turns abusing the ratepayers. It was by design, and now is the time to change it."
He said the state lawmakers who represent Erie County could get the reform legislation approved and signed in Albany if they and the current Erie County executive, Mark C. Poloncarz, unite behind it.
"Nobody in Albany cares about the Erie County Water Authority except the local delegation. If the local delegation wanted the change, it would pass without any problem at all," Giambra said.
Public attention has again turned to the Water Authority after The News reported Feb. 25 that the Republican commissioners currently in control gave their Republican-appointed executive director a golden parachute that makes it too costly to fire him once the Democrats take over later this year.
Executive Director Earl L. Jann Jr. would collect anywhere from $300,000 to $400,000 if fired this year without cause. He signed his new employment contract Jan. 11, just days after Democrats again became the County Legislature's majority party.
While Giambra called for the change, it's unlikely that he would ever have the power or influence to make it happen. He recently dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination for governor and intends to run with only a minor party line, that of the Reform Party.
Giambra said he hopes the recent outrage expressed about the Jann contract might prod people in positions of power to act. Poloncarz, for example, recently said golden parachutes should be banned at the Water Authority, and Assemblywoman Monica P. Wallace, D-Lancaster, introduced legislation to cap severance at New York's public authorities to three months' pay.
There was no immediate comment to Giambra's suggestions from Wallace or from an influential state senator from Erie County, Republican Patrick M. Gallivan of Elma. However, Poloncarz said folding the Water Authority into county government is "something that should be considered."
Yes, county government has proven it can take on the role because it successfully runs sewer systems, Poloncarz said. But he doesn't think the county executive can get the ball rolling simply by calling for the change.
"It's a state authority," he said of the Water Authority.
"Is there any appetite in Albany to do it? I don't know."