In the wake of a bottling company’s self-aborted bid to construct a plant in the Town of Ulster and use millions gallons from Kingston’s water supply, city lawmakers say they want to establish new rules to give elected officials more control over Kingston’s drinking water. But doing so will require a change in the city charter and a public referendum.
Last year’s proposal by Niagara Bottling to build a facility to process and bottle up to 1.75 million gallons each day from the city’s municipal water supply touched off a groundswell of opposition. It also led to what was for many city residents a surprising lesson on the City Charter and the Kingston Water Department. Back in 1895 when the department was formed with enabling legislation from the state, it was set up as a largely independent body. A board of supervisors appointed to fixed terms by the mayor establishes rates, sets and administers budgets and makes decisions about capital improvements. The council’s only involvement with the department is signing off on bond requests.
The system was put in place to ensure that expensive water infrastructure projects, requiring careful long-term planning and fiscal prudence, remained separate from rough-and-tumble municipal politics. But the circumstances of the Niagara deal — in which Kingston’s elected officials were left on the sidelines while the Town of Ulster spearheaded the project review and the water board was left to determine whether the city could have supplied the plant — shocked and dismayed many residents. Instead of an up-or-down vote on the water sale, the Common Council was relegated to passing non-binding resolutions requesting a seat at the table during the Ulster-led environmental review.
“It was a glaring issue for the Council and a lot of residents,” said community activist Rebecca Martin, “to learn that they didn’t have any say in the matter.”
Now that Niagara is gone — the company pulled the plug on the proposal back in February — there is a push by city lawmakers to assert more control over the sale of city water. In April, Alderman Bill Carey (D-Ward 5) brought the issue to the council’s Public Safety & General Government Committee, which he chairs. The proposal currently under discussion would amend the charter to require Common Council approval for the sale of water outside of city limits. Currently, such sales need approval only from the water board and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The amendment would effectively give the council potential veto power in cases, like Niagara’s, where a major water consumer opted to set up in a community like the towns of Ulster or Esopus, which have contracts to use city water.
“Ultimately, the Common Council and the people of Kingston should have some ability to block the sale of water if they see it as detrimental to the city,” said Carey.
But making the change will require a multi-step process, including a public referendum to amend the charter. Once the Public Safety & General Government Committee makes the recommendation, it would need approval by the full council and the mayor. After that, supporters would have to obtain signatures from city residents totaling 5 percent of the total number of Kingston voters in the most recent gubernatorial election (currently about 320 would be required). Finally, the issue would be placed on the ballot for a public referendum.
Carey said he believes the charter change vote should be coupled with a regularly scheduled election to avoid the expense of a stand-alone ballot issue. He added that, with the Niagara deal off the table, the city could take its time with the issue.
“I don’t know if we’ll do it for this term,” said Carey, who is running for re-election in November. “But certainly before my time is up as an alderman, I would like to see that that on the ballot.”
Any effort to give the council more control over water sales will face a formidable opponent, however, in Mayor Shayne Gallo. Gallo, who is also up for re-election in November said he believes the charter change would need approval from state lawmakers, since they passed the enabling legislation to create the water department. Such approval, Gallo said, was unlikely to be granted. Gallo said he also shares the concerns of the water department’s founders about political interference with a vital resource.
“They may be well-intended,” said Gallo. “But it would do nothing but politicize the issue, which is what the state legislature was trying to avoid when they created a separate system.”