Siela A. Bynoe (Photo from Nassau County Legislator Siela A. Bynoe's office)

Op-Ed: Hempstead’s Drinking Water Must Not Be a Political Football

By Siela A. Bynoe

In government, our commitment to serve the public must transcend the political fray. In the case of Hempstead Village’s ongoing drinking water contamination crisis, the Blakeman administration has thus far been unable to place residents’ basic needs before politics – a circumstance made even more galling by the potential health ramifications of its stubbornness.

Earlier this spring, Hempstead Village officials, led by Mayor Waylyn Hobbs, revealed that the Village’s wells, which provide drinking water for over 59,000 residents and countless small businesses, had three to 11 times the acceptable level of the emerging contaminant 1, 4 dioxane – a suspected human carcinogen linked to liver and kidney cancers.

Hempstead Village has some of the County’s oldest water infrastructure, which serves Nassau’s densest population hub. On May 21, the Village Board voted to borrow $55 million to build a state-of-the-art water treatment facility, and has urged federal, state, and local leaders to do their part to ease the burden upon village taxpayers.

For months prior to this public appeal, I worked alongside my colleague, Legislator Scott M. Davis, to marshal County resources. This culminated with a formal request on May 3 for more than $1.75 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding from $15 million set aside for legislative initiatives. With the August expiration of their 1,4 dioxane waiver fast approaching, these resources would equip the Village to begin work on this critical project and give residents and business owners – especially restaurants who rely upon the water for cooking – some peace of mind that help was on the way.

As a breast cancer survivor, I had genetic testing that proved I was not predisposed to the disease – yet I was diagnosed like countless others in my community. I do not want that potential burden for individuals who reside in the Village of Hempstead.

Per the statute establishing this $15 million fund, the Legislature – not the County Executive – is tasked with determining allocations. The administration’s role is to process requests from the Legislature. Yet, in another erosion of the division of powers in Nassau government, the Blakeman administration has usurped control of this process.

While a joint request from two Democratic legislators for potentially life-saving resources has languished for months, similar requests for Republican districts encompassing Farmingdale, Hicksville, and Great Neck, have passed swiftly through the Legislature – sometimes in mere weeks. This demonstrates how the administration injects partisan politics into almost every aspect of County government – even something as vital as the delivery of safe drinking water.

To date, the Republican Majority has received over $4 million in ARPA funding for legislative initiatives, of which more than $2 million is for water treatment projects. Meanwhile, the Democratic Minority has requested over $3.3 million in ARPA funding – including the $1.75 million for Hempstead water – but received nothing. At a bare minimum, the approval of one Legislator’s $1 million request to combat 1, 4 dioxane in Farmingdale has set the precedent for Legislator Davis and I to request approximately $875,000 apiece for Hempstead Village.

At this moment, there is more than $50 million remaining in Nassau County’s ARPA allotment which must be obligated by year’s end, and I believe delivering additional aid from the County’s ARPA funding allotment is a matter of economic and environmental equity.

A March 2020 Newsday report exposed how 56 percent of homes in District 2 communities, including Hempstead Village, were overtaxed because of frozen tax rolls and the resulting shift in assessed value to minority communities. At the time, I represented a configuration of District 2 that encompassed the vast majority of Hempstead Village. It is also important to note that the County administration has once again frozen the tax rolls, creating avenues for a return to this state of inequity.

Given these factors alongside the looming taxpayer burden of a $55 million capital bond and the fact that all of Hempstead Village’s wells are impacted and how residents and business owners will have little alternative to purchase bottled water for drinking and cooking at great personal expense, County Executive Blakeman’s administration has the opportunity – and I would contend the obligation – to support Hempstead at a level proportional and commensurate to their present public health and economic challenges.

The people deserve action and immediate answers – and it will become the shameful legacy of County Executive Blakeman and his administration if they fail to rise to this most basic standard of equitable governance.

Siela A. Bynoe, of Westbury, the Nassau County Legislature’s Alternate Deputy Minority Leader, has represented the Legislature’s Second District since 2014.

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