Caution Needed on C.P.F. Water Plan

With the governor’s signature, a proposed 20-year extension of the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund that could divert up to 20 percent of the 2-percent real estate transfer tax to water quality projects is well on its way to the November ballot. At first look, this might appear to be terrific news, but given what we know about state and local government, there is very real reason for caution.

The enabling law approved by the State Legislature is far too vague and leaves too much to local officials’ discretion. On close inspection it amounts to not much more than a framework, leaving it up to the region’s town boards, with tepid oversight from an understaffed and underfunded Department of Environmental Conservation, to make sure there is no room for future abuse. First and foremost, iron-clad, independently vetted safeguards about how the money is to be used were not written into the process.

In all, the extension of the program is expected to bring in perhaps another $1.5 billion. It is telling that state and local officials chose to carve out one of every five future dollars for water quality, leaving little for other critical goals, such improving residential options for the area’s work force. But then, as recent anti-housing reactions in Wainscott and Amagansett illustrate, providing for this community need can be decidedly unpopular. Under the state law, preservation fund revenue could be used for upgrades to existing sewage treatment plants, so why not for preserving access to houses and apartments for the people who actually keep the communities up and running?

Then there is the question of land use and if improvements in wastewater treatment will lead to overdevelopment. There is strong evidence that the authors of the state bill feared that it would: The law that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed last week specifically mentions this concern but fails to provide any guidelines about how to prevent it.

Clean water is a vital but feel-good goal. Reflecting on past examples of the misuse of government funds is of the highest priority as officials prepare proposals for voter approval in November 2016. Consider, for example, that stealing money from environmental funds, as occurred to paper over holes in the Suffolk County budget, has not always been fatal to the careers of those officials who did so.

Closer to home, local examples of poor judgment (the Montauk Army Corps project) and outright law-breaking (the East Hampton Town Bill McGintee scandal), add to the likelihood that politicians will seek ways to take advantage of anything they regard as “free” money. It would be foolish to believe that this could not happen again. Watchdog groups, as well as the public, must monitor the process closely in advance of the expected referendum.

“Trust us,” as the bill’s authors and its supporters seem to be saying, just won’t cut it.