Cesspool Rebate Plan Considered and Cautious

Buoyed by the prospect of millions of dollars over time from the community preservation fund, East Hampton Town officials are moving quickly on plans to reduce water pollution. In a program that could begin later this year, properties that meet certain criteria could have a portion, or even all, of a replacement sanitary waste system paid for with public money. This is good, but there is still reason to be wary about potential misuse because of a lack of clarity in the underlying state law.

Certainly in East Hampton Town, caution about skimming of the fund should be the first thing on officials’ minds if they learned anything at all from the Bill McGintee-era debacle in which a portion of the C.P.F. money was used for several years to pay ordinary town expenses.

According to a draft presented at a town board meeting last week, as many as 6,000 houses and businesses with inadequate, pre-1973 cesspools could be eligible for rebates of up to $15,000. Separately, in a related proposed law, low-nitrogen systems are to be required for all new construction and large-scale additions, though public funding would not be available. These are important steps toward assuring safe drinking water and keeping the bays, creeks, and harbors productive.

Funding for the rebates would initially come from money authorized by a referendum on the community preservation fund that was okayed in November. A large majority of voters approved a ballot measure to extend the 2-percent tax on most real estate transactions to 2050 and to allow up to 20 percent of the annual income to go to water quality improvement. Other sources of funding might be brought to bear, including perhaps Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed $2 billion water infrastructure bill. And there is talk of a county loan program as well.

Making things difficult from an accounting perspective, however, officials have belatedly said the preservation fund portion for water projects had to be spent in the year it was collected. At least one skeptic has challenged this, asking officials to specify exactly where in the law this supposed requirement is spelled out. As with previous iterations of the fund’s enabling legislation, the loophole and vagaries are significant. 

Income not spent on cesspools or wastewater plants would not be lost; it would roll back into the land acquisition pot to be used for future purchases. Residents who did not receive a rebate commitment from the town in one year if preservation fund receipts dipped would be able to seek approval the following year. Nonetheless, a definitive answer would help all involved make long-range plans.

One of the biggest risks in the November referendum was that voters handed politicians a fat pot of discretionary money with little in the way of oversight or legal guidance. So far, though, East Hampton’s cesspool-replacement plan seems considered and cautious. Adjustments will no doubt have to be made before the program reaches its full potential, but it appears that Town Hall is moving in the right direction.