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Poloncarz proposes package of reforms for Erie County Water Authority

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Fri, Jun 22nd 2018 08:05 pm
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz presents his proposals for reforms at the Erie County Water Authority.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz presents his proposals for reforms at the Erie County Water Authority.
County executive proposes lowering commissioners' stipend, instituting five-year terms
Poloncarz cautions on high cost of ECWA dissolution, issues surrounding labor contracts, retiree benefits, civil service issues
On Friday, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz outlined a package of proposed reforms for the Erie County Water Authority, which was the subject of a recent report from the state Authorities Budget Office (ABO) that formally censured the Erie County Water Authority and outlined numerous problems, including a lack of transparency and accountability in governance and decision-making. Following consultations with the NYS ABO earlier this week, Poloncarz presented proposals that build on ABO recommendations and remove political influence from Water Authority operations.
Chief among the county executive's proposals is a call to amend the Water Authority's enabling statute, a move which would increase the size of the Water Authority Board so that two people, both from the same political party, do not control the authority.
Poloncarz said, "To eliminate the influence of politics on the board, I am proposing a new, seven-member board with appointees from the Erie County Legislature, the county executive and the governor. In the interest of fairness, the legislature would have three appointments, the county executive would have two appointments, and the governor would have two appointments. These appointees would serve staggered five-year terms, a length of service that would eliminate the dependence on election cycles that now encumbers these board seats."
The county executive's proposals also call for the Water Authority to annually submit to the legislature and comptroller a detailed financial report along with reports of operational activities, including the hiring and termination of employees and contracts entered into with third parties for any goods or services, on a quarterly basis, and to include the county executive as a party to receive said reports. This, the county exec. said, would increase transparency and accountability while eliminating secrecy in Water Authority business.
In addition, Poloncarz called for amendments to the enabling statute to compel the Water Authority to provide to the legislature, county executive and comptroller a six-year capital plan to address issues of infrastructure needs, including, but not limited to, replacement of infrastructure, and expected, if any, bonds or other investment instruments to be issued on the authority's behalf.
Also, to foster greater transparency and public input, Poloncarz urged an amendment to the enabling statute to compel the authority's executive director and chairperson to hold a public meeting at the chambers of the Erie County Legislature to hear the concerns of the public and take questions from the public on a quarterly basis, two meetings of which must be held between the hours of 6-9 p.m.
"Greater public scrutiny and input into their water provider is essential to improved services and builds greater accountability into the system. The Water Authority should not operate in secrecy and should add public input into their business model to provide better service and responsiveness to Erie County residents," Poloncarz said. "This would instill public confidence in the Water Authority and improve relations between the public and the Water Authority."
Poloncarz also called for the reduction of the stipend paid to Water Authority commissioners to $7,500 from the current $22,500 and for the prohibition of "golden parachutes" for Water Authority personnel.
The county executive's proposals also cautioned on the potentially high costs of dissolution of the Water Authority, noting the Water Authority currently holds approximately $43 million in debt and that early payment of some of the bonds held by the Water Authority could incur additional millions of dollars in costs. Additional pitfalls along the dissolution route include issues related to the termination and renegotiation of labor contracts, long-term costs associated with retiree and employee benefits, and civil service issues relating to job titles and seniority.
Poloncarz added, "The hue and cry for dissolution of the Water Authority may sound good, but there are real and expensive challenges lying ahead if that path is pursued. In reality, it may cost Erie County millions of dollars and years of time and effort before dissolution is achieved, and there are numerous legal entanglements that would need to be sorted out along the way. My proposals present another path forward, one that could be achieved with far less cost and that would remove political influence from the Water Authority at the same time."

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