Give me Liberty or give me cash.

That, more or less, is what Jersey City, N.J., which supplies water to the Statue of Liberty, has been telling the National Park Service, which is responsible for paying the tab.

Upset over delinquent, but disputed, water bills approaching $1 million, city officials threatened this week to foreclose on the national monument and sell it at public auction -- a legal impossibility that has federal officials chuckling.

"We'd like to talk to whoever buys it," Duncan Morrow, the park service's chief of media information, said yesterday, "because we know of a bridge in Brooklyn he might be interested in."

Ho, ho. But newly elected Jersey City Mayor Anthony Cucci, who withdrew the threat on advice of counsel -- and because "it would be like selling the Constitution or selling my grandmother" -- is not quite so amused.

"What we want is the money that's owed," the mayor said yesterday from city hall. "This thing has been pending for several years. We're very short of water revenue."

The dispute dates back to August 1982, when the Jersey City water department, which supplies Liberty Island via a pipe owned and maintained by the federal government, read the meter and charged the park service $258,000 for the previous year -- roughly 25 times the usual assessment at a penny a gallon.

It came as something of a shock.

Jersey City water director Tony McCann, however, said the feds have made meter-reading unusually difficult. "The meter's down there in a pit with snakes and things and the park service has a lid on top that weighs 300 pounds. We've been trying for years to get them to change it. You need three guys to lift it off."

The problem was eventually traced to two leaks in the supply line, at the bottom of New York Harbor, and a defective meter. After much haggling and even more leaking -- during which the water bill escalated to $414,000, then to $672,000, and finally to the current $958,000 in principal and interest (which is more than the original cost of the statue itself) -- the park service fixed the pipe and installed a new meter.

Jersey City and the park service will start haggling anew the first week in October. "We're willing to negotiate," said the mayor. "In fact I'd settle for half."