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Editorial: A well-deserved smack for the Water Authority

What do you know? The water authority that hires unqualified leaders and frolics in a sewer of patronage is viewed by its own customers as one of the nation’s worst. Sometimes, there is justice in the world.

The annual service by J.D. Power ranks the Erie County Water Authority eighth worst among the largest 88 water providers in the country and third worst among those in the Northeast. It’s the price for a programmed rejection of professionalism. Who wants to pay fees to an agency that doesn’t care about qualified leadership? Well, never mind: The Water Authority doesn’t care about that, either.

It’s a monopoly in its large service area, so customers are captive. They have nowhere else to go. That frees the authority and the Erie County politicians who manipulate it, to ransack its reputation as they choose.

Specifically, the Water Authority received especially poor marks in the areas of communication, conservation and price. But Andrew Heath, J.D. Power’s senior director of the utility practice, said problems with political leadership, hiring practices and other issues likely played into its abysmal rating.

“In many ways, it’s all perception,” Heath said, “but that perception is based on what’s going on in reality.” The reality isn’t pretty.

The survey, with rankings on a scale of zero to 1,000, put the Erie County Water Authority at 669. The worst was the authority in Pittsburgh rated at 605, while the best was the Monroe County Water Authority, rated at 735. The average across the Northeast was 709.

The Erie County Water Authority's ranking has fallen each of the last three years that J.D. Power has conducted the water utility customer survey. It’s hardly a surprise, given the deceptions and reckless decisions it has committed.

For example, as the authority was preparing to hire an unqualified candidate as its executive director last year, its leaders misled the public by claiming to a reporter that no such action was pending, then surreptitiously put the matter on the agenda. It’s no wonder they wanted to avoid publicity: The new leader was – and remains – Earl S. Jann, a former town supervisor whose main qualification was that he was a conspicuous donor to Republican causes and candidates.

That’s the way it is at the Water Authority, and the abuses are bipartisan. The Democrats who now control the Erie County Legislature recently appointed Amherst’s Democratic Party chairman, Jerome Schad, as the authority’s chairman.

And so it goes at the authority, where you must pay to play. As a recent story in The News reported, as of the end of March, 45 nonunion managers and lawyers, along with their spouses, had given a total of $408,000 in political donations since taking their Water Authority jobs. That included $20,000 from the staff comptroller, $23,000 from the human resources director and some $43,000 an agency lawyer.

And all of that helps to deliver safe, clean water at an affordable price, doesn’t it? And that helps to secure the authority’s standing with its customers. Right?

Right. Sure it does.

The Erie County Water Authority has run itself into the ground. Its very organization reeks of corruption and its own ratepayers are onto the game. The question is when voters will start taking it out on the local politicians who game the system and when the ones in Albany will conclude that the authority, a creation of the state, is more trouble than it’s worth and replace it with a county department with qualified leadership.

Any guesses when that will happen?

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