Concerns Raised Over Water Plan

Even before the North County Water District board of directors moved forward last month with plans to discuss adding the village of Fredonia as a partner with the city of Dunkirk, it got an earful about one other potential supplier: the Erie County Water Authority.

Both village Mayor Athanasia Landis and city Mayor Wilfred Rosas have heard serious concerns about the Authority possibly looking to become the sole supplier of water for the north county in the future. Those apprehensions, the elected officials say, come from constituents as well as elected representatives from their current boards.

“As you know, this issue is a very hot issue,” Rosas said at the district’s meeting at the Fireside Restaurant on June 28. “(There are) rumors that the board here is looking to have the Erie County Water Authority become the main supplier of water within the next five years. I don’t believe that, but it is out there.”

Landis concurred. “I went to a meeting, a specific meeting and (County Executive George Borrello) was with me when that was brought up,” she said. “The quote was ‘There are better ways to spend your $50 million than dredge your reservoir.’ When I asked, ‘What?’ The quote was, ‘Join the Erie County Water Authority.’

“That’s not a rumor. There were 10 people in the room.”Landis later noted the person who made the remark was an engineer who currently is contracted by the North County Water District. While Borrello and others attempted to quell her fears, there remains concerns.

ERIE COUNTY’S PUSH

In September 2015, then-Chautauqua County executive Vince Horrigan was growing frustrated. There were state funds available to begin a district, but the north county municipalities and their leaders could not get on the same page due to concerns over rates and timelines. Leaders in Albany were frowning and tiring of our region’s lack of cooperative spirit.

Enter the Erie County Water Authority.

By the middle of that month, the authority placed a full-page advertisement in the Dunkirk Observer to outline how it could offer the necessary water capacity to the area at 30 percent less than what the city of Dunkirk would charge customers, with an average savings of $1 million in annual treatment costs over the next 100 years. The proposal involved the authority expanding and upgrading a pipeline from Sturgeon Point to the Chautauqua County border, with Chautauqua County building a pipeline from the border to the existing Dunkirk distribution system.

“We want to make people — both your residents as well as your elected officials — aware that they have another alternative … that can benefit them,” said Earl Jann, then chairman of the Erie County Water Authority Board of Commissioners, in a phone interview in 2015. “We don’t believe they have been given a true picture of what we can offer.”

While no local government took the bait, it did spark a greater regional spirit and action at home. By early October, the town of Portland became the first to sign an intermunicipal agreement in regard to joining the North County Water District.

See WATER, Page A9

Within the week, the town of Dunkirk followed suit.

One month later, the city of Dunkirk signed off on becoming the major supplier. The North County Water District was becoming a reality.

A POSSIBLE WELCOME BACK

Fredonia’s potential re-entry into the district as a supplier began sometime around Christmas. Borrello and Landis had opened a dialogue that centered around the future of the village’s troubled system.

Currently, Fredonia’s system is in need of repairs and, most recently, it was noted by the state comptroller’s office to have a reservoir dam that was unsound. Landis notes, especially since the exit of ConAgra, the village is able to produce more water than it uses.

That is part of the reason for the recent spike in Fredonia’s rates. ConAgra was the largest user. Once it shuttered operations, the village lost its cash cow. Fixed costs of having to deliver water to residents remained — and passed on to the current users.

Landis, in the June 28 meeting, struck an optimistic tone about recent discussions with Borrello in being a partner with the district. “The water that Fredonia has is clean, it’s cheap and it has the possibility to expand,” the mayor said.

It was a 180-degree turn for the village, which has avoided becoming a true partner in the district until this meeting.

Fredonia had been adamant about going on its own since 2009. Even more recently, an apparent deal had been struck for the village to be a supplier when Stephen Keefe was mayor. Village trustees, however, would later reject that deal.

Today, Landis says she has the support of village trustees, as well as enough votes, to be a part of the district. “I’m very excited about it,” she said. “I would very much like the village of Fredonia in the district. … Regional solutions, overall, have more power than individual municipalities.”

TROUBLES TO THE NORTH

A wave of controversy and criticism has surrounded the Erie County Water Authority since February. It was first reported by The Buffalo News of a potential golden parachute for Jann, who could have collected nearly $400,000 even if he was not in an employee of the authority.

Besides that, the authority seems to be loaded with patronage positions, so much so that Erie County legislators and the County Executive Mark Poloncarz have called for reforms at the agency.

At the June 28 meeting, board member Jay Warren noted the North County Water District right now has a 40-year contract with the city of Dunkirk to be its main supplier. But, no one ruled out the possibility of Erie County being a back-up supplier if problems ever arose.

Borrello made a plea to the board to make local suppliers the priority. “We cannot depend on Erie County water, in my opinion, if we want to attract a large user of water, whether it be another food processing plant or something like that,” he said. “Down at that end where I live (near Siler Creek), the Erie County Water Authority has been jacking up rates and has not been reliable in some cases. Should they decide that they want to compete with us for whatever that new business may be, I come from a business world where you can’t compete with the supplier … and you’re the middle man.”

District board members plan to meet — possibly later this month — with elected officials in Fredonia and Dunkirk to discuss how to move forward now that the has again expressed a desire to be part of the district. Landis, however, remains uncomfortable with any Erie County involvement.

“I will keep my guard up,” she said.

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