Mike Kaplowitz didn’t have to travel far to find his new path in life.
After serving for more than two decades on the County Board of Legislators, the Somers man will now be helping Westchester plot a way to better handle its sewer districts, water treatment facilities and recycling.
In introducing Kaplowitz as deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services last week, County Executive George Latimer declared that the Democrat has the legal, financial and political chops necessary to tackle such a difficult task.
The attorney and financial planner did two turns as chairman of the Board of Legislators. He is a budget expert and fiscal conservative, not to mention the past chair of the county’s Environment and Energy Committee, which has fought to preserve thousands of acres of open space.
He and his wife, Jayne, have two daughters.
Kaplowitz’s “intellect, public commitment and knowledge of the county make him perfectly prepared to do this,” his mentor said Wednesday, Dec. 11, in White Plains.
He will work closely with the department’s commissioner, Vincent F. Kopicki, and Peter McCartt, its director of energy conservation and sustainability.
After announcing his decision last January not to seek reelection, the representative of District 4, which includes New Castle and portions of Yorktown and Somers, said: “There’s a natural cycle for things. I feel it’s time for me to step away and someone else to step up.”
He added that he hoped to continue in public service but not as an elected official.
Succeeding Kaplowitz on the Board of Legislators will be Democrat Vedat Gashi, a Yorktown real estate attorney.
Kopicki said he has worked well with Kaplowitz and is happy the soon-to-be former legislator will be joining his team at the headquarters of the county Department of Environmental Facilities (DEF) in New Rochelle.
‘HOLISTIC’ APPROACH NEEDED
The county’s DEF is responsible for planning, operating and maintaining sewage treatment plants and pipelines, drinking water treatment and distribution, recycling facilities, garbage transfer stations and handling of hazardous waste.
Likening it to a “Rubik’s Cube,” the setup is complicated because of the multiple levels of government involved, Latimer said.
There are seven wastewater treatment plants and 13 sewer districts in Westchester. Each municipality is responsible for the operation and maintenance of their district sewers and the plant(s) that treats their wastewater as well as comply with state and federal rules and regulations.
Over the years, the framework just kind of “evolved,” but now it’s time to reassess it. But without taking a “holistic” approach, it probably would be next to impossible to convince taxpayers that improvements will benefit everybody, the county chief said.
That’s where Latimer’s new appointee’s analytical skills and personal experience will come in.
Water quality and the proper disposal of wastewater is a hot topic in Kaplowitz’s back yard.
Somers, currently in the process of trying to form a new sewer district in two of its lake communities, hopes to gain access to the county’s treatment plant in Peekskill.
The town and its environmental and engineering experts argue that aging septic systems in Lake Shenorock and Lake Lincolndale and stormwater runoff in general are endangering local and New York City drinking water supplies and curtailing recreational opportunities such as swimming and fishing.
It has already installed a stormwater filtration system in Shenorock and hopes to get outside funding to do the same in Lincolndale. Lake Purdy is also on the town’s radar.
Opponents of the plan claim the town isn’t being completely transparent about the multimillion-dollar project’s costs or impact and is merely trying to hike taxes. Others, however, are welcoming the move, saying a public sewer system would bring the town into the 21st century.
A public vote on the project was postponed until next year after questions were raised about its Map, Plan and Report. The town has hired a public relations firm to help it deal with residential concerns.
Yorktown also been taking steps to secure a $10 million grant to extend public sewers in the Hallocks Mill Sewer District order to meet New York City’s directive to lower phosphorous levels in stormwater runoff entering the Croton Reservoir.
Latimer also cited Kaplowitz’s ability to work across the aisle: “People of all political persuasions recognize that he is an outstanding public official.”
Kaplowitz did “a brilliant job” of steering Westchester’s Environment, Health and Energy Committee at a time when the county was moving to protect its waterways and open spaces and expand recycling programs, Latimer said.
Although climate change wasn’t yet at the forefront of the public’s concern then, sustainability issues were emerging.
In 2003, Kaplowitz was asked to chair the Budget and Appropriations Committee, a post that requires a deep understanding of “every nook and cranny of county government,” Latimer said.
County Director of Operations Joan McDonald said Wednesday that Kaplowitz will help the DEF look beyond its “day-to-day operations” and make policy decisions that are fair and equitable across the county.
Shared services, such as the possible consolidation of sewer districts, are one way to keep costs down. In order to do that, the current structure has to be revamped, McDonald said.
Among the things Kaplowitz will examine are the “financial viability” of each district. He will identify any capital investments needed to keep plants and supporting systems “the best in class,” she said.
This is important because of the amount of development taking place, especially in cities such as New Rochelle, Yonkers, and Peekskill.
Deputy County Executive Ken Jenkins said he’s confident that the new deputy commissioner can build bridges between communities competing for the same resources.
“Listening to the charge, I’m kind of scared. Is it too late to back out?” Kaplowitz quipped Wednesday.
Noting that it’s naive to think politics won’t be a factor, he acknowledged that each community has the right to look out for its own best interests.
Any changes the DEF proposes won’t hold water until constituent-conscious legislators give them the thumbs up, Kaplowitz said.
The county is venturing into “unchartered territory” and the speed with which policy changes occur and “what the end product is, is not at all assured,” Latimer said.
But because Kaplowitz has been handed a “blank canvas,” “pretty much everything’s on the table.”
Job one is to determine the best way the county can save money while delivering services more efficiently, protecting public health and preserving the environment.
So Kaplowitz’s talent for diplomacy will come in handy when it comes time for the county to explain to taxpayers why it has to shift funding among different levels of government to accomplish this.
“It’s a tricky process,” Latimer admitted.