Davis: engineering firm’s donations cast doubts on sewer study

One side element in the answers Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus and Democratic challenger Pat Davis gave the Times Herald-Record last week about the future of the county’s sewer district was the campaign contributions given to Neuhaus by the engineering firm that is studying the issue.

As the Record noted in 2015 after the county hired Albany-based Delaware Engineering to do the study, the firm donated $4,000 to Neuhaus in 2012 and 2013, before he was elected county executive. Three other firms collaborating with Delaware on that study also had made campaign contributions to Neuhaus at various times. Since that contract was awarded, Delaware and one of its partners, Jon Brust, gave Neuhaus a combined $4,000 – the most that contract holders are allowed to give the county executive in a single term under the county’s 2013 Pay to Play Law – in two donations on July 10 of this year, according to finance reports filed with the state Board of Elections.

Asked last week about how the county should approach expanding treatment capacity in its sewer district in southeastern Orange, Davis said the first step would be to review how the county chose Delaware Engineering as its consultant to explore that issue.

“When Delaware Engineering has a very clear business stake in the outcome of decisions made by the County Executive, and there exists a pay-to-play relationship between Delaware and Neuhaus, we can’t be confident in the conclusions they draw in their study,”  Davis said in his written answers. “It makes an ethically gray situation even worse when the County Executive is not accountable to the residents footing the bill for the proposed solution.”

Neuhaus, responding to that statement, fired back: “Delaware Engineering has done work in thirty counties in New York State.  That speaks for itself. Ask my opponent who he would have hired and then see if they even applied.”

Chances are that company might have ponied up, too. Campaign donations from contractors are so rife in New York that an Orange County spokesman pointed out in 2015 – to dismiss the relevance of the money Delaware had given – that eight other engineering firms that bid for the sewer study contract also had contributed to Neuhaus’ campaign, without getting the contract.

Davis also took issue with Delaware Engineering’s suggestion in a draft report last year that the county free up capacity at its treatment plant in Harriman by piping some of its wastewater to the Village of Goshen’s plant. “I am committed to finding a long-term solution, whether or not that includes diversion of sewage to another plant,” Davis wrote. “A $22.7 million price tag for an interim solution, devised by a politically connected firm, and without any input or approval of the users footing the bill (or their elected representatives) raises a lot of serious questions that need to be answered.”

Neuhaus, in his answers, had supported diverting wastewater to Goshen as a prudent alternative to expanding the Harriman plant for the third time, an option that could  attract state and federal grants while making better use of Goshen’s “underutilized” plant.

“For those unfamiliar, by ‘flow diversion’ we mean directing some existing waste to Goshen from places which now go exclusively to Harriman,” Neuhaus wrote.  “That can be a potential solution because Goshen has the capacity and Harriman has historically not wanted a bigger wastewater plant.”

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    Chris McKenna

    Chris McKenna covers Orange County government and politics for the Times Herald-Record. He has been a reporter at the newspaper since 1999. Read Full
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