Around Town Hall: Septic Rebates On Horizon; Board Reports $4 Million Surplus In 2012

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Six months after creating a Water Quality Protection Fund to subsidize projects aimed at reducing the pollution of groundwater and tidal bays, Southampton Town is poised to begin an incentive program that will tap that fund to help residents replace, upgrade or repair their aging or failing in-ground septic systems.

As proposed, the incentive program will provide grants that will cover up to 60 percent of the cost of replacing a septic system, to a maximum of $5,000, for the replacement of an old septic ring system with a newer system that reduces the amount of nitrates and bacteria that leach from the units into groundwater. The proposed program outline requires that the system to be replaced be from 1981 or earlier, when the standard septic system was to have just a septic tank buried in the ground, often sitting directly in groundwater.

Newer systems that employ multiple leaching rings or clusters of rings combined with a solid-waste storage tank, known as “shallow pool” systems, create more separation of waste from water tables, thus reducing the amount of nitrates that go unfiltered before they reach groundwater tables.

To qualify for a rebate, the proposed replacement system must demonstrate that it results in lower nitrate levels reaching the groundwater, as determined by the Suffolk County Department of Health.

Town officials are banking that the potential savings of several thousand dollars may be enough to spur some homeowners to accept the costs of upgrading their system, a proposal that, under normal circumstances, could easily run between $5,000 and $10,000.

“We’re trying to get those people who would love to upgrade, but are finding it a little hard to swallow,” said Councilwoman Christine Scalera, who sponsored the Water Quality Protection Fund and the incentive program bill.

The board harked back to the town’s hugely popular oil tank replacement incentive, which offered $500 toward the cost of removing or replacing in-ground heating oil tanks. That program helped spur the replacement of hundreds of leaking oil tanks throughout the town.

Installing a new standard septic tank system, with one to three leaching pools, costs about $5,000. Installing a more elaborate alternative system with steel holding tanks—which are required where water tables are too shallow to allow for standard septic tanks that are between five and 12 feet tall—can cost as much as $10,000.

“This was always one of the goals of the Water Quality Protection Fund,” Ms. Scalera, who sponsored both programs, said Tuesday night during a public hearing on the rebate program. “While this contemplates a budget appropriation, in terms of surplus, other sources are being looked at … including land use approvals.”

The septic rebate program and water protection fund give the Town Board an avenue to direct surplus funds—the town realized a $4 million surplus in 2012—to the rebate program, as well as make contributions to the fund eligible for “community benefit” considerations in development projects. Early next month the town will use some $200,000 contributed to the fund by a Water Mill homeowner in exchange for being granted permission to make alterations to the shoreline of his Mecox Bay property.

Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst suggested that the program should perhaps give priority to houses that are in regions where the potential for negative impacts from ineffective septic systems are most serious, such as in neighborhoods close to tidal wetlands and bays, or in places where water tables are very close to the surface. The board agreed to allow homeowners in groundwater protection overlay districts, or within 200 feet of ponds or tidal waters, to receive rebates of up to 60 percent of the replacement costs.

Board members said the program is sorely needed and a good first step toward addressing some of the water quality issues in local bays, western Shinnecock Bay in particular. But they also lamented that even more stringent reductions in pollutants could not be required because Suffolk County has not yet approved the most modern treatment systems for use on single-family homes.

“The current standards—I think everyone agrees—are not good enough and we’re hoping higher standards are going to be put into place,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “But could we not require a higher standard in order to qualify for [the town subsidy]? Could we not say, ‘The current standards are failing us, that’s why our waters look the way they do?’”

Town Planning and Development Administrator Kyle Collins said that because the county has yet to approve the systems, any higher standards would be impossible to meet. He noted that more modern systems that can reduce nitrate levels by large margins are also still too expensive for most homeowners.

Kevin McDonald, a conservation coordinator with The Nature Conservancy, suggested that the town consider focusing some of the early funding on trying to spur an entire neighborhood that borders a tidal creek or pond to replace their septic systems, both as a test of the effectiveness and as a model that could be used to convince other neighborhoods to tackle similar localized initiatives.

Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister, long an advocate for aggressive action to reduce septic system pollution of tidal waters, said the program is “wonderful,” but also urged the town to use it as an opportunity to lead the charge toward more stringent water quality standards countywide.

“We need to move them along, so we’re not languishing for three, five, 10 years without any significant improvement,” Mr. McAllister said. “To the extent that you say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,’ I think you will get other towns to follow your suit. If you’re out front, they will follow. Open the flood gates.”

Town Had $4M Surplus

Officials said when they finished closing the town books for 2012, there was more than $4 million left over from tax and income revenues, thanks largely to stringent controls on spending and continued reductions in staff size.

Much of the surplus funds will be used to pay down debt obligations in the 2013 fiscal year and make purchases that will free the town from further borrowing in the future.

On Tuesday, the Town Board approved a schedule to spend $1 million of the money to pay for upgrades to equipment, computer systems and town facilities, rather than borrow to pay for them over time. Another $1.2 million will go toward the town’s annual contributions to its retirement funds.

The town will also pay down $620,000 in short-term loans for vehicles, highway equipment and computer equipment. And an additional $260,000 will be used to pay off the debt on the purchase of pump-out boats and senior services vehicles.

Sergeant Will Get Lieutenant Pay

The Town Board also agreed on Tuesday to pay Town Police Sergeant Lisa Costa approximately $650 in back pay, the difference between her current salary and what she should have earned at a lieutenant’s pay grade while she was serving as an acting lieutenant earlier this year.

Sgt. Costa had been made acting lieutenant by former Chief of Police William Wilson Jr., even though the Town Board majority declined to officially promote her on numerous occasions. While serving as acting lieutenant, Sgt. Costa was legally entitled to earn lieutenant’s pay. After Chief Wilson retired last November, Sgt. Costa was stripped of her acting position and another department sergeant, Michael Zarro, was promoted to lieutenant by new Police Chief Robert Pearce and the Town Board.

Sgt. Costa and another female officer have filed sexual discrimination lawsuits against the department and Town Board.

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