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Editorial: It's time to put the Water Authority out of its misery

Firing Earl L. Jann Jr. was the smartest thing the Erie County Water Authority has done in years, but it’s only a start. It’s time to put the Erie County Water Authority out of its misery – and of everyone else’s, too.

This grossly underhanded agency needs to be dissolved in favor of a county department and, happily enough, state law lays out a process for doing it. It begins in the Erie County Legislature and ends on the desk of the governor. It’s happened before and it needs to happen again.

The authority’s new board fired Jann, the authority’s executive director, on Thursday. The action followed a caustic report by the state Authorities Budget Office and as the water authority, itself, claims suddenly to comprehend that its years of shady practices are a serious matter.

But that awakening lacks credibility: It coincided with the authority’s receipt of the draft report by the state Authorities Budget Office, which held Water Authority leaders accountable for a laundry list of failures. Officials there have routinely stiff-armed the public and dropped generous but unqualified political donors such as Jann into cushy jobs, paid by the authority’s captive customer base.

The sources of these problems are both organizational and cultural. The authority was designed not just to provide water to its customers but, more nefariously, to serve the political whims of party bosses and their elected lackeys. The most recent evidence was the hiring of Jann.

As a former pharmaceutical sales rep and town supervisor, Jann had no relevant experience to serve as a member of the authority’s board or, worse, as its executive director, a position for which he was paid $149,000 a year to direct a specialized, $73 million operation.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the authority hired Jann after deceiving the public about its intentions by denying to a News reporter that the matter was on its agenda. That’s been the authority’s pattern: concealing; misleading; ignoring. It’s so bad that it has precipitated a criminal investigation by the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.

The risk now – the likelihood, really – is that the authority will simply replace the Republican hack Jann with a Democratic hack. The only reliable way to change the pattern is to change the structure.

Authorities can fill a legitimate and useful need. A hybrid of the public and private sectors, they serve a public interest – such as water, roads and bridges – with user fees funding construction, maintenance and operations.

In their public aspect, authorities are required to abide by open government rules and other requirements. On the private side, they demand to be managed professionally.

The Erie County Water Authority does neither.

Instead, it willfully violates open government standards and, until Thursday, was run by a director with no relevant experience. Its failures are rampant. It needs to be dissolved and merged into Erie County government, where elected officials can be held more directly accountable for its operation.

To do that, the Erie County Legislature needs to ask the state legislative delegation to introduce a home-rule message to dissolve the authority, which was established in 1949 at the county’s request under the state Public Authorities Law. The measure would then require approval of both legislative chambers and the signature of the governor.

There would be hurdles. For example, the State Comptroller’s office reported in 2017 that the Water Authority carried debt of nearly $10 million in bonds and notes, part of a total liability package of about $104.5 million. That would have to be sorted out.

But it can be done. The Montgomery-Otsego-Schoharie Solid Waste Management Authority was dissolved four years ago following a home rule request from the three Central New York counties. The decision followed a report by the Authorities Budget Office, which found that under MOSA, waste disposal costs for the three counties had significantly increased. Garbage continues to be collected.

Now is the time to move on this. Erie County needs a respectful, professionally run water department. The Water Authority has shown, over and over, that it cannot be those things.

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