Midland Sewage Plant Really Stinks for Taxpayers

On July 5 the Onondaga County Legislature held a public hearing about funding the $67 million cost over-run for the Midland Avenue Sewage Plant. Partnership for Onondaga Creek (POC) members and supporters spoke about the need to investigate the cost estimating practices of the county's consulting engineering firms before county lawmakers agree to spend millions more.

During the 2002 negotiations regarding the proposed Midland sewage plant, the county's consulting engineers described their aboveground design for the Midland sewage plant as "mature." They claimed that the plan for underground storage, preferred by the POC, was not, meaning that its cost estimate could vary. The county refused to consider underground storage because it would cost $75 million - $20 million more than their supposedly cost-effective aboveground approach.

In 2003, the engineering firms submitted a $55 million cost estimate for the Midland sewage plant to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), and the state soon gave the county the green light to begin construction. In May 2004, six months after the NYSDEC approval, the county opened the Midland sewage plant construction bids - the lowest bid was $75 million, $20 million more than the submitted cost estimate.

Now, with about half of the project done, the consulting firms are asking for $50 million more, bringing the total for their cost-effective plant to $122 million.

Because Lake cleanup projects have significant funding from federal ($120 million), state ($165 million) and local (at least $215 million) sources, the POC is calling for audits at all levels. On June 9, the POC wrote State Comptroller Alan Hevesi asking for a state audit of the county's engineering firms. On July 6, the POC met with Wintrop Thurlow of the Attorney General's office. Thurlow made it clear that having hard evidence was essential for the AG's office to investigate the possibility of public fraud. A state audit would be a first step.

The POC has collected over 500 signatures petitioning Hevesi to audit the county's engineer firms, and we are asking our elected representatives to support this inquiry as well. At the July 5 county public hearing we also supported county legislator Althea Chaplin's resolution calling for the county to do its own independent investigation.

Onondaga County has asked the firms what caused the increase. Their answer is essentially, "inflation," - even though they had included an inflation factor in their "mature" 2003 estimate. If our local lawmakers accept this non-answer isn't it time for regime change?
- Aggie Lane