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County legislators summon Water Authority officials to get answers

Erie County lawmakers typically shy away from asking Water Authority officials to appear before them and answer tough questions. But Thursday will likely be an exception.

On a day the Legislature will interview Water Authority commissioner candidates, Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, will also ask authority officials to justify their existence during his Government Affairs Committee meeting.

If they can't or won't, he said, the Legislature should consider cutting commissioner salaries. Commissioners make $22,500 a year.

"We can talk about changing their salaries if they aren't even willing to work with the Legislature and the public," he said.

Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said the Legislature doesn't have that kind of power.

"We cannot change the Water Authority's salaries," he said. "We can't change the salaries of anybody over there. We have no authority to do that. It's disappointing that Legislator Burke doesn't have the understanding of what the role of county government or state government – where he aspires to go – has over the Erie County Water Authority."

Burke and former County Executive Joel Giambra say the 1940s law that created the Erie County Water Authority provides a clear path for the authority to be taken over by the county. Burke wants current commissioners to explain why that shouldn't happen.

Under the Erie County Water Authority's enabling legislation, the authority was created "for the benefit of the people" and can be dissolved after its debts are paid, Burke said. So if the county or some other entity would assume the authority's debts, he said, the authority doesn't need to exist.

So should it exist?

"I want to ask them some serious questions about their views of the authority and their views of the foundation documents of why the entity was created," said Burke, D-Buffalo, who is running for State Assembly. "If they don't show up, I'm going to just start reading from the state law that really highlights how they're not living up to the founding tenets of their organization."

The last time the Legislature asked Water Authority officials to appear was after a Sturgeon Point water main break last summer, when thousands of Southtowns residents experienced low water pressure. The repairs so far have cost the Water Authority more than $2 million.

At the time, lawmakers scheduled water authority officials to appear but left their appearance off of the committee agenda, so the public wasn't alerted. None of the commissioners attended.

Multiple legislators have stated that Legislature decisions regarding the Water Authority are often politically driven. But Burke said there's no reason why the authority shouldn't be asked to appear before the Legislature more often.

"The public is also demanding that we do something, that we at the very least hold hearings and demand accountability," he said. "I think that is a low bar to set as elected officials. We're county legislators, and that's our job."

Even if authority officials don't show up, Burke said, other people will, including the head of the Western New York Water Workers union, who intends to ask the Legislature why the water authority has the money to grant contracts to its executive director and vendors, but has been unable to negotiate a contract settlement with the union over the past year.

Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, D-Lancaster, has also said that barring inclement weather, she would appear before the Legislature to discuss her bill to make public water authority officials ineligible to receive more than three months of severance pay. Her bill comes after the water authority granted a three-year employment contract to Executive Director Earl Jann, a Republican donor and former chairman of the board.

Burke is also calling on the Erie County Comptroller's Office to audit the water authority. In response, Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw said he's happy to do that if that's what the Legislature wants.

"I've audited them in the past under both Democrat and Republican rule," Mychajliw said. "I'll audit them again. I have no issues with that."

The last audit conducted by his office in December found the authority to be in general compliance with the rules under which it is governed.

Lorigo described Burke's last-minute effort to invite water authority officials before the Legislature as an attempt to grab headlines.

"Everybody is frustrated with how the water authority is being run. Nobody is happy with what the commissioners did or how it operates under the current scheme," he said. "It is time to address that with the proper Legislative body, that being the Western New delegation and the New York State Legislature."

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