“I know I’m probably the least popular person in this room right now,” said New York American Water President Carmen Tierno.
Those were his opening remarks during a public meeting at North Shore Middle School on Aug. 9 that was attended county legislators, village officials, civic leaders, and residents of Glen Head and Sea Cliff who are affected by the water company’s recent rate hike.
More than 100 residents filled the auditorium to voice their concerns about recent water bills. Since the $3.6 million rate increase took effect on June 1, after being granted by the state Public Service Commission, many residents have seen large increases in their bills. Janet Pucciarelli, a Glen Head resident whose last bill was $745.16, said she worries that she will receive another one like it.
“At age 90, you live on a little pension and you live on Social Security,” Pucciarelli said. “I would like some individual attention, and a lot of other people would too. It’s outrageous, and it’s overwhelming.”
Dan O’Connor, of Glen Head, said one of his recent bills was $429. Of that bill, O’Connor said, $222 was surcharges. “If this community doesn’t dig further into this, we’re going to have a massive problem,” O’Connor said. “This is thievery at the highest.”
Town of Oyster Bay officials also sat in on the discussion to provide their insight. Councilman Lou Imbroto said he joined the panel to listen and learn more about this issue. Looking at the water rates and hearing about residents’ concerns, Imbroto said something must be wrong.
“These people are not buying Starbucks, they’re not buying iPhones, they’re buying water,” Imbroto said. “There’s a real problem with the PSC that we need to address, and we need more information from all of the parties that are involved. We want to have all of your backs.”
Nassau County Legislator Donald MacKenzie, who was commissioner of the Oyster Bay Water District in 2010, said he could feel the “tension” among residents. “The people who are here feel that they have no recourse because of the mechanisms that are in place,” MacKenzie said. “We’re here to support whatever decision that’s been made.”
Tierno explained that 70 percent of the water bills that residents are receiving are made up of property taxes. “I don’t like it. I don’t like being a tax collector, and I have been talking to many of the legislators in this room about this,” Tierno said. “We will do anything we can to help change that dynamic.”
NYAW provides service to 120,000 homes and businesses in Nassau County, Tierno explained, but he said he wished the bills only included the water company’s service.
Sea Cliff village administrator Bruce Kennedy explained that one of the issues is that local municipalities affected by the rate hike do not have the legal authority to assess the values of their utilities for taxing purposes, including NYAW.
Kennedy said that in 2014, the state’s Office of Real Property Tax Services quadrupled the value of NYAW in the Sea Cliff water district, making the village’s property taxes “go through the roof.”
“It didn’t increase the revenue that was collected by the school district, by the village, by the county or the town,” Kennedy said.
He added that the property taxes that the water company pays in the village have gone down by 46 percent since 2015, dropping from $245,643 to $168,298. Over the same span of time, the annual residential water bills have steadily increased. Additionally, NYAW’s stock price has more than doubled in the last four years, jumping from $37.67 in January 2013 to $81.33 as of August.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Kennedy said. “If we’re going to have a private company, they shouldn’t be making these kind of profits off our backs.”
Sea Cliff Mayor Ed Lieberman urged legislators to convey the village’s message to the PSC. “Our bills are astronomical,” Lieberman said. “It’s time for the ratepayers in this district who are hit the hardest to join together.”
At the village’s board meeting on Monday, Lieberman announced that Sea Cliff would pursue possible litigation to challenge rate charges and fees authorized by the PSC and billed by NYAW. He also said the board would bring the issue to the attention of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“This board is very concerned with the recent bills,” Lieberman said. “We should look into long-term legislation changes.”
Glen Head-Glenwood Civic Association President George Pombar explained that the best options for Glen Head and Sea Cliff are eminent domain to take over the water company or the elimination of property taxes for it, which could only come with the help of local legislators. While many residents agreed with Pombar, finding a resolution might be difficult.
“If anyone here, including my colleagues in government, tells you that there is an easy solution to this problem, then I think you have to substantially discount what they’re saying,” said Assemblyman Charles Lavine, a Democrat from Glen Cove.
Lavine explained that when the power plant in Glenwood Landing was decommissioned in 2014, the state was able to provide $5 million in funding to help the village through the tax loss. He said the state could provide similar help now.
Deriggi-Whitton said she would like to see more transparency out of NYAW and the PSC.
“The PSC website is one of the most transparent things that I’ve ever seen,” Tierno said. “I encourage everybody to go to their website if they want to be bored with a lot of numbers and documents. I know it’s not easy to follow, but we will provide whatever is needed to help the county figure this out. We’re not going to withhold anything.”
Kennedy and DeRiggi-Whitton said they plan to meet with tax assessors to figure out the tax history.
Assemblyman Michael Montesano, a Republican from Glen Head, explained that state officials are well aware of this issue. The state, however doesn’t have a “magic bullet” to solve this problem immediately, he said.
“The PSC aren’t the easiest people to deal with,” Montesano noted, “but we will deal with them and come back with a result. We’ll do our share.”
“We need a short-term solution and we need long-term solution,” said Agatha Nadel, a lifelong resident of Glen Head. “Staying with [NYAW] is not the solution.”
Members of the panel agreed to look into this issue more closely and said that they would hold another meeting in the coming weeks.