Mayor Shayne Gallo said last week that he will, as he promised, sign legislation to authorize a referendum which, if approved, would give elected officials a say on the sale of city water to outside parties. But at least one member of the appointed board which oversees the city’s water supply has expressed concern that new rules could stifle economic development at the former IBM campus in the Town of Ulster.
Since its inception in 1895, the Kingston Board of Water Commissioners has the exclusive right to enter into contracts regarding the sale of city water outside of city limits. Those sales are subject to approval by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
But in a unanimous vote two weeks ago, the Common Council approved an amendment to the City Charter which would require both the council and the mayor to sign off on deals to sell Kingston water. The vote paves the way for a public referendum in November; if it passes, it becomes part of the charter.
This week, Gallo, who had previously expressed skepticism about the charter change, said he would sign the bill and let citizens have the final word.
“If the council wants to put this issue before the voters, I’m not going to stand in the way of that,” said the mayor. A public hearing on the matter has been set for Thursday, July 23, at 10 a.m. at City Hall.
The issue of control over Kingston’s water supply, which comes from Cooper Lake in the Town of Woodstock, arose last year when California-based Niagara Bottling proposed building a major production facility near the old IBM campus in the Town of Ulster. The plant would have used up to 1.75 million gallons of water from Kingston’s municipal system each day. The proposal, which was tentatively endorsed by the water board, was eventually withdrawn in the face of strong community opposition. But many of those opposed to the project, including members of the Common Council, were shocked to learn that because the project was located in the Town of Ulster and the Kingston Water Board held exclusive rights over the sale, Kingston elected officials would have no say in the matter.
“This was something that I don’t think got a lot of attention before Niagara,” said Rebecca Martin, who helped organize opposition to the bottler through the community group KingstonCitizens.org. “And it was a real shock to find out that the people’s elected representatives were not part of the process.”
Soon after Niagara withdrew the proposal, the council’s Public Safety & General Government Committee headed by Alderman Bill Carey (D-Ward 5) began looking at ways to extend the council’s control over Kingston’s water. The matter took on added urgency as lawmakers sought to get the referendum on the ballot in November to avoid costs associated with a special one-issue vote later.
“I think everybody was just trying to find a clearer, more transparent process for how water is sold outside of the community,” said Martin.
Water board leery
But defenders of the current system note the water board was designed to keep politics out of the delicate task of long-term management of a vital community resource. Currently, the water department maintains its own budgets, sets its own rates and operates largely independent from the rest of city government. In fact, the only intersection between elected officials and the department are the mayor, who sits on the water board and appoints members to fixed terms, and the Common Council, which must sign off on bonding requests. (The department, meanwhile, pays off the bonds from its own budget.)
In a May 28 press release responding to the proposed referendum, Water Board President Joseph DeCicco noted that voters overwhelmingly rejected the creation of a city-controlled public water system in the 1880s, fearing enormous tax burdens and political interference. It was only when the water department was set up as an independent utility that voters signed on.
DeCicco also defended the water department’s handling of Niagara’s proposal, noting that the agency was still in the midst of a “very specific process” to determine if they could meet the needs of the proposed plant without compromising the water supply when the company, unwilling to push ahead in the face of stiff opposition, pulled the plug.
“For over 100 years the Board of Water Commissioners has been a good and faithful steward of the City’s water supply,” wrote DeCicco. “City residents are urged to think carefully before they agree to change its governance, especially a change that would inject political brinksmanship into the process.”
Bad for TechCity?
Another water commissioner, HeritagEnergy CEO Abel Garraghan, echoed DeCicco’s comments last week and said that he was especially concerned about the referendum’s potential impact on redevelopment of the former IBM campus. Garraghan, who was appointed to the board by Gallo earlier this year, said access to large amounts of water was a prime selling point for the campus which has struggled to attract tenants since it was taken over by a private developer and re-branded “TechCity” more than a decade ago. The campus is served by a 12-inch water main which once pumped a million gallons of water each day to the IBM facility.
“IBM was an economic engine, not just for Kingston, but for the whole region,” said Garraghan. “And the only way for it to become an economic generator again is for the City of Kingston Water Department to play a part. I wouldn’t want to jeopardize that.”
Backers of the referendum admit that issues will have to be clarified in any new system of governance for the water system. Among them; whether the state, which approved the creation of the utility back in 1895 will have to issue a “home rule resolution” before any changes can be adopted.
There’s also the issue of existing agreements between Kingston and surrounding communities for the sale of city water. The Town of Ulster, for example, holds a lease for the use of Kingston water that runs through 2103. Town Supervisor James Quigley III said last week that altering the governance of the water system could lead to a legal conflict between the two communities.
“The existing water contract between the City of Kingston and the Town of Ulster is very clear on who has what rights and responsibilities,” said Quigley. “And I would expect the City of Kingston to honor that to a T.”
But supporters of the referendum say that giving elected officials — who are accountable to taxpayers — a say in the use of water is common sense, especially in an era where climate change and population growth have made access to the resource ever more critical.
“Water is almost like the new oil, and how it’s managed needs to be open and transparent,” said council Minority Leader Deborah Brown (R-Ward 9). “The people who set this system up in the 1900s had great intentions, but who bottled water and sold it back then? That wasn’t even a concept for them.”