Last week, water ratepayers from the Sea Cliff district attended a board meeting of the Jericho Water District to plead a case for consolidation. Their purpose was to see if Jericho Water would be willing to absorb Sea Cliff customers under its jurisdiction in the event of a state condemnation of New York American Water.
“We’re here to speak about the possibility of what we all believe is a reasonable solution,” said Legislator Josh Lafazan, who facilitated the meeting. “If there was forward action from New York State to rid New York American Water of its responsibility of servicing these homes, we believe an eventual consolidation with the Jericho Water District would make fiscal and logistical sense for our residents.”
Residents and officials from Sea Cliff, Glen Head, and Glenwood Landing were represented at the meeting. Mayor Edward Lieberman provided historical context for the board, citing a recent state investigation into NYAW that was launched after the company revealed it had over-assessed its Sea Cliff properties in 2014.
“We received a letter from NYAW . . . responding to the administrative inquiry indicating that they did in fact make mistakes, which culminated in bills that were 70 percent taxes, and for the most part based on over assessments,” Lieberman said.
In light of the investigation, NYAW officials proposed to reduce ratepayers’ property tax payments by $1.7 million, which would lower an average Sea Cliff customer’s monthly water utility bill by 34 percent. The reduced bills took effect last month.
Despite reduced surcharges, ratepayers still pay at least five or six times greater rates for their water as opposed to residents served by a public municipality such as Jericho.
“We are no longer interested in dealing with a water company whose sole motivator is profit,” said Bruce Kennedy, Sea Cliff’s village administrator. “We’re looking for a board of commissioners whose sole focus is on water quality and service, and Jericho Water District is doing it for their residents.”
Kennedy asked the board if consolidation was viable, and if it would be something that interested Jericho. The commissioners sympathized, but said that the answer was more complex than a yes or no. “To give you the short answer, we just can’t unilaterally take over your accounts,” said Commissioner Thomas Abbate. “We’d be dealing with the technical import and aspects of infrastructure, and that’s a tricky, dicey thing.”
Jericho Water would have to conduct a feasibility study, he said, before absorbing the Sea Cliff district. “We would need to find out what resources Sea Cliff has, how it operates, what resources we have in the vicinity of Sea Cliff, how many customers we would acquire, and what the cost of that is,” he said.
The commissioner added that since Jericho Water District is a governmental entity, it is not authorized to expend private funds on a hypothetical feasibility study. “We can’t be spending public funds on a project that’s just a concept,” he said.
After a question was raised to see if private funds could carry the feasibility study, Lafazan suggested that money from elsewhere be used. “Perhaps as this process moves forward, we could ask Marcellino and Montesano that in the April budget, money could be procured for a possible feasibility study,” he said.
State Senator Carl Marcellino would not comment on the possibility of funding the proposed study until proper recommendations were made. “We’d have to look at the proposal to see what it entails, and until we know exactly what the proposal is, these conversations will go on,” he said. “I have no idea what the cost would be, or its impact on Jericho, but we’ll see what Josh recommends and then we’ll go from there.”
Jericho Water’s attorney Mike Ingham said that the district would reserve judgment on the process but presumed the study would require NYAW’s input. “It’s more complex than we can understand,” he said.
“The fact remains that there is a significant property tax burden borne by our customers on the North Shore of Nassau County as a result of the taxes our company is assessed,” said NYAW President Carmen Tierno in a statement. “To this end, we will continue to pursue additional tax relief measures by working with state and local legislators and other leaders.”
However, Kennedy is convinced that consolidation is the only way out. “Various solutions have been offered, and certain state legislators have offered bills to try to alleviate the costs . . . but none of these proposed bills are the solution,” he said. “Even if they were successful, they would not give us the relief that we are looking for.”
Lieberman believes the meeting was a positive step forward in Sea Cliff/Glen Head’s fight for public water. “I think we’ve opened up a dialogue and a door has been opened,” he said. “If that message was conveyed to the governor, [he] would know you’re willing to go forward, listen to any proposals that would be made and act accordingly.”