The Owasco Lake Watershed Inspection Program may be on its way to new management and new office space, though not everyone is happy about it.
The Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council voted 4-2 Tuesday to begin the transferring of watershed inspection staff from the purview of the Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District to the council. The district had taken the program on while the council worked to become an established 501(c)(3), which it became earlier this year. Auburn City Councilor Debby McCormick said the goal is to change over the program by January next year.
The nonprofit corporation — made up of members from the city of Auburn, town of Owasco and Cayuga County — is in the process of establishing an agreement, but it has already proposed pay and benefits to current staff. It plans, too, to request Cayuga County provide office space at Emerson Park to inspectors so they may be based in the watershed they survey.
The Cayuga County Parks Commission has the item listed on its upcoming agenda for discussion on Aug. 23, adding that inspectors have often used the park's office as a satellite. Inspectors are currently housed in the district's building on County House Road in Sennett.
The intent of the entire move, said McCormick, is to take ownership of the program and to allow for more funding opportunities as a nonprofit organization. With so many groups working on water issues, she said it's important for inspectors to have more of an identity. Many times the Owasco Watershed Lake Association is viewed as the county representatives, she added, and that the watershed program staff "are just some guys that come along."
"The Owasco Watershed Inspection Program is kind of lost in it all," McCormick said. "They don't have the autonomy or the authority to do what they're supposed to be doing, so to us, we'll help facilitate that."
The program, which was established a decade ago, monitors and responds to water quality issues in Cayuga, Onondaga and Tompkins counties, all of which are in the Owasco Lake watershed. Inspectors make sure everything and everyone is in compliance with the rules and regulations of the watershed, and can conduct inspections on any property in the watershed boundaries.
The Cayuga County Legislature, Auburn City Council and Owasco Town Board will have to pass a resolution for the program's move to be final, but some attendees of the management council's meeting appeared unhappy with Tuesday's vote — including Watershed Specialist Andrew Snell.
"By the way, thanks for your efforts and your work moving forward with this restructuring," he began, prior to the council's vote. "The proposal on the table though, however, removes the state benefits including state retirement, and I, that's a deal-breaker for me with this."
McCormick stopped Snell, saying she thought that was a personnel thing to discuss. Snell said it could be, but it was still part of the proposal that was being advanced.
Gary Searing, town supervisor of Fleming, appeared baffled by the resolution, saying those financial details for how inspectors would be paid and what their benefits would look like was all information he had hoped to receive before a resolution was proposed. Searing, who admitted to missing some of the council's meetings and executive sessions, said he was never emailed information. He felt in the dark and wasn't sure how the employees were being taken care of should the move occur.
Details of the salary and benefits, as well as the proposed agreement were not available to The Citizen Tuesday, but McCormick said the council had looked at the budget and talked to staff. Currently those who purchase water from the city of Auburn and town of Owasco have a charge on their water bills that goes toward the inspection program. Those funds are funneled through the conservation district to the employees. Now, however, an account set up in the corporation's name would take on those funds.
After the meeting, Cayuga County Environmental Health Director Eileen O'Connor confirmed that the inspectors would be paid through the nonprofit should the corporation take over the program. McCormick added that the council did its best to compensate employees considering they would no longer be getting state benefits. She said she was disappointed that Snell said what he had said.
While the county, city and town will not need to vote on the employees' benefits, the resolution requested the council, the city of Auburn, town of Owasco, Cayuga County and the district work together on "a new four-party agreement."
"The (Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District) board is frustrated about, was just a concern that this language is nice and rosy about a four-party agreement, but we haven't been a part of the agreement discussions," said Doug Kierst, executive director of the district.
Town of Scipio Board Member Leslie Baxter said the original intent of the council was to run the inspection program all along.
"I think to say that you haven't been asked about it might be a little bit of misinformation because that was the whole intent from the start," she said.
McCormick said the resolution's intent was not to slight the conservation district's work with the inspection program. It could have been under another agency's purview, and the council still would have moved to take the program on.
Following the meeting, she said it makes the most sense for the inspectors to be working for the council and those who directly collect the funds paying for the service.
"You wouldn't want the guy who is the inspector for restaurants to be one who worked for a food supplier," she said. "It wouldn't be right. We want the watershed inspectors to work for the council."
Cayuga County Legislator Aileen McNabb-Coleman, McCormick, Niles Town Supervisor Joan Jayne and Baxter all voted for the resolution. Searing and Locke Town Supervisor Mary Alice Stetz voted against it. Owasco Town Supervisor Ed Wagner was absent.