Once upon a time, Cedar Creek plant—along with Bay Park, now the poster child for how not to run a sewage treatment plant—was the crown jewel of the county. Workers tell the Press they’d compete—and win—national competitions based on their wastewater treatment skills and services. Shelves of awards and other accolades still fill a trophy case in the visitors’ area just through its doors as testament. Engineers and other waste plant employees and operators from across the country would tour its many facilities and various pieces of state-of-the-art equipment.
The plants’ demise began under former Nassau Republican County Executive Tom Gulotta, they say, though it was the near-decade under the administration of former Democratic County Executive Tom Suozzi that brought both Cedar Creek and Bay Park to their knees. Reams of internal documents reviewed by the Press last year detailed Cedar Creek’s staff’s futility in maintaining the facility’s crucial processes and multi-million dollar equipment and machinery under gross mismanagement and abject neglect at the top, punctuated by retaliation if workers spoke out. Work orders went unfulfilled, further exacerbating costs to taxpayers. Millions of dollars went unspent or are still missing. Preventive maintenance was non-existent. Out of more than 12,000 man-hours of required preventive maintenance at Cedar Creek in 2008, for example—the equivalent of changing the oil in one’s car so it doesn’t completely break down—a total of eight were performed. Workers didn’t receive adequate health and safety equipment or training. Both plants were also horribly understaffed, among myriad other issues that included inoperative methane gas valves at Cedar Creek despite its two closest neighbors being elementary schools.
Mangano announced in his inaugural address he would strive to resurrect the sewage treatment system. Since then, he says, his administration has invested more than $75 million “just to triage the situation.” The Republican majority legislature held a hearing last February that exposed many of the plants’ problems, most notably mismanagement, understaffing and lack of preventive maintenance. Mangano promised more hires, promotions and additional training. He then banished Nassau’s Superintendent of Sewage Plants Richard Cotugno to a warehouse in Westbury. Sludge streams, with no warning to the public, crept from Bay Park through the popular fishing waters of Reynolds Channel and made it onto YouTube, among other discharges.
Despite some forward progress, the reality in the plants is back to grim. Critical equipment is still broken. They’re still understaffed. Overtime has been nixed. Promotions never came. Methane valves are again not being adequately serviced.
Morale has returned to abysmal depths. Heavy campaign contributors of Mangano’s have moved in as contractors. New hires are brought in because of who they know rather than what they can do. Cotugno, though removed from the plants, still receives a salary of more than $130,000, compliments of the taxpayers, and was actually recently identified as the steward of the county sewer system’s 10-year plan.
Now, the Republican majority is bent on not raising taxes, yet it is strapped for cash. The county faces a budget gap next year of more than $300 million, and it’s embroiled in a money battle with county unions over additional concessions worth more than $150 million that has resulted in mass layoffs. There were 128 in June and 175 at Nassau Health Care Corp. this week; another 700 threatened if the county did not meet its projected goal. The plants, given their troubled history, have become easy targets.
Nassau is the second-wealthiest and second-highest taxed county in the nation, but its state financial watchdog, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA), enacted a control period in January and later declared a fiscal crisis. It has the final say over the county’s finances. It has also imposed a pay freeze on county workers.
CSEA President Laricchiuta says there are about 260 county employees servicing the plants and its network of pipes whom he’ll be fighting tooth-and-nail to protect. Mangano assures the Press they’ll all be safe, either retained, redeployed to fill other vacancies or possibly offered employment by whoever takes the system over.
If true, even that does little to quell the many other money battles currently raging between the county executive and Nassau’s five public employee unions. Laricchiuta tells the Press that Team Mangano’s demands in the ongoing budget war are simply unrealistic—the equivalent, he says, of an average $12,000 pay cut, per member.
“It’s unattainable, and it looks like if that’s the only options we have, then they’re going to be laying off 700 people, which will completely destroy the services in this county,” he continues. “We will remain the highest taxed county in the country, with the absolute worst services in the country.”
Laricchiuta describes the privatization plan, which he says he only heard about seriously roughly two months ago, as a “huge fire sale” and believes Mangano needs a change in legislation on the state level in order to do it.
“[Mangano] could care less about services right now,” he says. “He needs the money. People that need money get desperate. And I think it’s a desperate move. It all comes down to: Are they allowed to do it or not?”
He also views the scheme as an extension of Republican union-busting tactics taking place in other municipalities across the country.
“The Nassau Republicans have taken on the national agenda of attacking the American working middle-class families,” says Laricchiuta. “They have decided here in Nassau County that the direction they will go is to vilify the county worker, attack the working man and his family, and balance the budget on the backs of the lowest-paid workers in the county.”
He stresses that it never was the county’s sewage treatment plant workers who devastated the plants, but the higher-ups who ran the places into the ground—and that it’s a guarantee that ratepayers are going to pay more under a private company.