Intensifying a classic city-state confrontation, dozens of the city’s most powerful business and labor leaders are urging Governor George Pataki to sign legislation authorizing construction of a massive water-filtration plant in Van Cortlant Park in the Bronx.
Mr. Pataki has threatened to veto a bill needed to move the project forward, alarming private-sector leaders and aides to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The Mayor’s advisers have been lobbying Mr. Pataki to support the $1.3 billion plant, a huge public works project that would create thousands of jobs and ensure cleaner drinking water for millions of city residents.
The Bloomberg administration has invested a great deal of political capital in the project, which even Mr. Bloomberg’s strong-willed predecessor could not get done.
Now, with Mr. Pataki facing a legislative deadline of midnight on July 22 to sign or veto the bill, the project’s supporters are letting the Governor know how they feel, in no uncertain terms.
“Getting this built is extremely important to the business community and to the city,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, an organization of business leaders. “This is by far the most cost-effective way to deal with a long-term problem-how to create a clean water supply for New York City.”
“We are urging the Governor to sign the bill,” added Steven Spinola, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, a group of major property owners in the city. “We think it’s an important project for the city of New York.”
Business leaders and Mayoral aides say that a veto would not only derail the project, but would also undo City Hall’s patient efforts to build a consensus in the Bronx in favor of the project. Mr. Bloomberg’s aides have managed to assemble a broad coalition among environmentalists, community activists and state officials.
This was no small accomplishment, since the controversial proposal had been stymied for five years by parks advocates and Bronx community groups, who argued-and continue to argue-that the plant would gobble up precious parkland. But, as The Observer first reported on June 16, City Hall managed to secure a deal with state legislative leaders to pass the legislation necessary to move the project forward.
All that’s missing is Mr. Pataki’s signature.
In recent weeks, Ms. Wylde, Mr. Spinola, dozens of leaders from the construction and trade unions, and several major contractors have written private letters pressing the Governor to support the plant.
The letters, copies of which were obtained by The Observer , have arrived on the Governor’s desk from an array of labor unions, including the United Federation of Teachers, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, 1199 SEIU, the health care workers’ union, the New York State AFL-CIO, and even the Boilermakers Local Lodge No. 8.
Many others have weighed in as well. Edward Malloy, the head of the Building Construction Trades Council, sent a letter in support. So did Peter Tully, a powerful Queens-based contractor who is closely allied with Mr. Pataki, having played an important role in the clean-up of Ground Zero.
The result is that an unusually broad coalition of business leaders, construction companies and private-sector unions has formed in support of a project that’s largely eluded public attention. “It’s unusual in this town for labor and management to work so closely together on a goal of this magnitude,” said Jeff Elmer, the deputy director of government relations for the General Contractors Association.
Still, the plant faces plenty of opposition. Several parks advocacy groups and Bronx neighborhood groups continue to battle the plant. And one of the Governor’s most powerful allies in the environmental community-Paul Elston, a member of the board of the New York League of Conservation Voters-is also working hard to persuade Mr. Pataki to block the plan.
The proposed plant would filter water that originates in the Croton Reservoir in northern Westchester County. Croton, which supplies 10 percent of the city’s water, serves the Upper East Side, parts of the West Side, lower Manhattan and some neighborhoods in the Bronx.
City Hall is under a federal court order mandating that the Croton water be filtered. Until the plant moves forward, the city will continue to pay fines of $7,500 a day.
Mr. Pataki’s aides say that the Governor may veto the bill because he has concerns about the legislation’s provisions for an environmental-impact statement. Some allies of Mr. Pataki say that he may tell the city to conduct a comprehensive environmental review, which would require city officials to return to Albany for new legislation in the future.
But this talk infuriates the plant’s supporters. They say that it’s unlikely, if not impossible, that state lawmakers will come together again to produce such controversial legislation. What’s more, if the Governor blocks the plan, city officials will almost certainly opt to build the plant in Westchester. That would be a far more costly option. It also would mean that the thousands of jobs created by the plant’s construction would go to suburban residents, and it would mean that the Bronx would lose more than $200 million for new parks that the Bloomberg administration had secured to mollify local residents.
“City officials have told us in no uncertain terms that if the Governor vetoes this bill, the city will build the plant in Westchester,” said Rita Schwartz, the director of government relations for the General Contractors Association. “The city would lose thousands of jobs, and the Bronx would lose a lifetime in improvements to green spaces. I can’t fathom why he would even consider vetoing it.”
Asked if the city would build in Westchester if the Governor blocked the Bronx site, Christopher Ward, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, would only say: “If we don’t secure the Van Cortlandt site, the city will be forced to identify its preferred new site almost immediately.”
Other people involved in the discussions have questioned Mr. Pataki’s reasons for holding up the legislation. These sources say that Mr. Pataki’s staff has privately indicated that the Governor is upset because he has been left out of the process, meaning he isn’t positioned to get sufficient credit for launching the huge project. These sources insist that Mr. Pataki wanted a hand in doling out the $200 million in new park funds in the Bronx. Pataki aides have denied these allegations.
Whatever the Governor’s motives, the plant’s many proponents are hoping that he resolves any remaining sticking points, and does it soon. “One of the looming issues facing New York City is water-the supply and the cost,” Ms. Wylde said. “We’ve got a water system that in some places is over 100 years old, and the proposal for Van Cortlandt Park is by far the best way to help address this. We are urging the Governor to sign the legislation.”
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