There is a legendary quote from Will Rogers: “if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” The Erie County Water Authority just cannot stop digging.
The major water main break that occurred in Amherst on July 20th certainly caused some disruptions. That happens sometimes. But because it does, the agency should be prepared.
Once the leak was discovered, the ECWA’s work crews immediately started to fix it. Service was restored fairly quickly, even though the permanent fix took a couple more days. Unfortunately the administration of the Authority did not perform as admirably as its crews did. They have had a problem getting out of their own way.
What the agency has done over the past couple weeks is to double down on its politics. An institution like the Water Authority is best suited for hiding in the weeds, not picking political fights. Here is what they have been up to:
- After the major main break in Amherst on July 20th they waited hours to put out information, even though thousands of homes and businesses lost water pressure or lost water service altogether.
- The agency’s public information system was so unprepared for this emergency that their website and phone systems shut down.
- The agency’s PR representative attempted to minimize the failure to communicate, claiming major problems occur so infrequently.
- The County Health Department assessed the situation and then posted a precautionary advisory to boil water until testing could be completed.
- A senior ECWA staffer also suggested that water be boiled as a precaution.
- Several days after the event the Authority scheduled a teleconference to explain their story. At least some of the robocall notices about that conference went out just an hour before it began.
- The Chairman of the ECWA, Earl Jann, stated that the County Health Department should not have declared a boil-water advisory.
- The agency emphasized the interests of local businesses, which admittedly needed to take extra steps in operations, over the interests and health of up to 250,000 local residents.
- The Authority suggested that the break had occurred because of some digging that National Grid had been doing. National Grid has reported that that is not true.
- Chairman Jann accused County Executive Poloncarz of grand-standing because of the boil advisory.
For the agency to leave the public in the dark about the crisis was inexcusable.
For the agency to suggest that no boil-water advisory was needed after they had issued their own is silly.
For the agency to place public health as secondary to the inconvenience of some businesses shows that their priorities are messed up.
For the agency to fail to fess up to its mistakes, and to turn a serious public issue into a political fight, shows lack of judgment.
One would think that with all that high-priced talent in the ECWA offices that they could handle any crisis professionally. All the more reason to get rid of the agency and roll it into the county government.
County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw also waded into the controversy by posting a statement on Facebook that attacked the county administration for issuing the boil-water advisory and questioned ECWA-county communications during the event. The statement closely parallels comments and the style of the Authority’s own statements, which emphasized business interests over the general public. Mychajliw and ECWA PR consultant Michael Caputo are political allies.
What to do
Water mains break. Water mains get fixed. But it does not take an army of high-paid executives and consultants to do that work. The Authority’s executive and office support structure serves no public purpose.
A public agency going through millions of dollars each year from their public customers needs to be held accountable. The ECWA is a public monopoly that is not accountable to anyone. If you live or have a business in their service territory, which is most of Erie County outside of the City of Buffalo, it is a pretty simple proposition: if you want water, the ECWA will sell it to you, at a price they determine. Take it or leave it.
That is why the ECWA can pad their payroll with all those high-priced salaries and expensive consultant contracts. Why does any agency with 240 employees need five human resources executives making a collective $527,000 annually? Why do they need multiple administrative types serving overlapping and superfluous responsibilities?
Assemblyman Sean Ryan and County Legislator Pat Burke have recently indicated that they will review some issues concerning the agency. Legislator Burke has scheduled a one-hour information session about the Authority on Wednesday. Good news! Even better news is that improvements are pretty simple:
- File state legislation to shut down the Authority and transfer the water responsibilities to the county government.
- The ECWA is nothing but a large public works operation. Transfer the overall management and the service operations staff to the County Public Works Department; the purchasing and personnel functions to the county departments with the same duties; let the executive office handle the public relations functions; the comptroller’s department can handle the bookkeeping and borrowing; legal matters can be handled by the county attorney’s office.
- After the state legislation is filed, get a home rule message passed to support the legislation.
- Pass the legislative bill.
- Set up the transition.
By the end of 2017 it could all be accomplished. Accountability would rest with the county executive and the county legislature. Water rate-payers would save millions of dollars per year when the high-priced staff and consultants are gone.
Although this all seems so simple, nothing much has ever been done about it by anyone in county government. Every now and then it has become a public issue.
And yes, I will take my share of responsibility for ignoring the issue when I served as county budget director in the 1990’s.
The previous county comptroller, David Shenk, said in his 2012 election campaign that he was conducting an audit of the ECWA. Shenk lost the election, but his office issued an audit of the agency’s personnel procedures on December 31, 2012.
The new comptroller, Stefan Mychajliw, also committed to an audit of the Authority. Mychajliw told WGRZ in April 2013 that his office was auditing the authority. “It’s not fair and it’s not right that people with just political connections are given these positions. It should be an open and fair process so at least everyone can apply and everyone has a fair shot at them.” No audit was ever issued by Comptroller Mychajliw’s office about patronage and staffing at the ECWA.
Instead, the comptroller conducted an audit of the ECWA’s “compliance with New York State Public Authorities laws and regulations.” The audit was issued on December 22, 2014. What follows is the entire findings section of that audit:
In our opinion, ECWA management has taken steps to include the requirements from the foregoing governmental authorities, especially the Public Authorities Act of 2005, including the additions in 2009.
No significant matters adversely affecting compliance with applicable laws, rules, or procedures came to our attention, except as disclosed in this report. Our audit was performed for the objectives previously described and would not necessarily disclose all instances of noncompliance with respect to areas not reviewed.
That’s it. No other audit findings, no staff listings, no numbers. Nothing about the patronage system at the Authority.
It is not important to attach names to the political hires at the authority. No one there at this time had much to do about creating the mess that is the Erie County Water Authority. But that does not justify its continued existence. Leadership is required in county hall and in Albany to clean it up. It’s time to move on.