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Another Voice: Here's how to dissolve the Water Authority

By Ken Kruly

When the Erie County Water Authority was created in 1949, county government hardly resembled the government we know today. A 54-member Board of Supervisors managed the government with no executive office. The authority was created because there was no significant county administrative structure in place that could manage drawing water from the lake, making it pure and safe to drink, and delivering it to its customers. Erie County government in the 21st century handles much larger functions than those carried out by the ECWA.

Legislation has been suggested to abolish or reform the authority, but nothing has been done to indicate that the state Legislature is so inclined. The Legislature has adjourned for the year. So here is a two-step local alternative that would signal the seriousness of county officials about seeing real changes made.

Section 1053 of the state Public Authorities Law, part of the ECWA’s enabling legislation, provides the following: “The members of the authority shall receive such compensation for their services as shall be fixed by the board of supervisors.”

Required action, therefore, is quite simple. A one-sentence resolution could cancel out stipends for ECWA commissioners, setting their compensation at zero, like most other public agencies. This action will save the ECWA’s customers $67,500 per year plus related payroll taxes and contributions to the state retirement system.

The second step is more complicated, but with the right buy-in by county officials and the ECWA, the process is doable, locally, without waiting for the state Legislature to act.

Section 1053.2 of the Public Authorities Law, again a part of the ECWA’s enabling act, provides the following: “The authority and its corporate existence shall continue for a period of twelve years from the twenty-seventh day of April, nineteen hundred forty-nine, and thereafter until all its liabilities have been met and its bonds have been paid in full or such liabilities or bonds have otherwise been discharged and thereupon all rights and properties of the authority shall pass to and be vested in the county of Erie.”

This means that if the bonded debt of the ECWA was paid off or has “otherwise been discharged,” the authority, having no debt, would pass out of existence and operations of the authority would transfer to county government.

The county could offer to pay off the authority bonds, with arrangements then made to allocate the repayment of the new county bonds to the customers of the current Water Authority – something that those customers are already doing through their current billings. The authority would then become a part of the county government.

This will not be a simple transaction, but there is a path forward on this – a locally controlled path that can accomplish something that will save money while improving services and accountability. All it takes, in the interest of the residents and businesses of Erie County, is some cooperation.

Ken Kruly formerly served as Erie County budget director and as a member of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority.

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