Finally, enough residents got together to complain about New York American Water, and their unreasonably high water bills, and didn’t let up until they caught the state’s attention.
A three-hour public hearing on Aug. 16 in East Rockaway gave way to a barrage of investigations into the stark disparity in water costs from one community to another. Afterward, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would refer the matter to state Attorney General Barbara Underwood’s office and request that a special investigator be appointed.
Over the weekend, the state reached an agreement with NYAW to provide rate relief to financially strained customers. As part of the agreement, NYAW will suspend the so-called “conservation rate” that recently sent hundreds of South Shore residents’ monthly bills soaring. This pricing arrangement charges a progressively higher rate as more water is consumed. The rate divides customers into four tiers based on how much water they use. Watering a lawn with an automatic sprinkler would put a homeowner in the highest tier.
The governor put the value of the state’s agreement with NYAW at $11 million. Thank you, Mr. Cuomo, for acting on behalf of NYAW’s customers.
Here’s the thing: Why so late? The Herald has been reporting for over a year on NYAW’s practices, which have left homeowners paying hundreds of dollars a month — in some cases, more than $1,000 a month — for water that ratepayers in municipal water districts outside NYAW’s jurisdiction pay less than $50 a month for.
Sea Cliff ratepayers have consistently said they’re tapped out financially just trying to pay their water bills.
NYAW’s reaction has been unsympathetic, at best, and downright infuriating, at worst. In recent statements, the company blamed ratepayers for their exorbitant bills, attributing the spike in charges to leaky pipes. Only when pressed by state senators and Assembly members from both the North and South Shore did the company finally attribute the increase to the new conservation rate.
At the Aug. 16 hearing, NYAW officials said the conservation rate was designed to reward customers who limited their water use. But records show that homeowners could use less water than in previous years but still pay more.
It’s just shameful, and the state is complicit in all of this. The Public Service Commission approved the conservation rate, apparently without thoroughly scrutinizing its effect on ratepayers’ bills, and certainly without demanding public outreach by NYAW to inform ratepayers.
The PSC is now among the state agencies that are investigating the utility. PSC representatives said the agency would look into whether there were any systemic issues within NYAW that would cause the bill spike, and whether the company increased its rates beyond an allowable 5 percent limit.
PSC Deputy Chairman Tom Congdon said the agency would “audit the heck out of” NYAW. Let’s hope so.
Meanwhile, Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, County Comptroller Jack Schnirman and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli are scrutinizing the utility as well.
There is little doubt that NYAW is spending millions to upgrade its water-treatment facilities and pipes. Greater transparency is needed, however, so a ratepayer can know precisely how much of a bill is going toward such projects.
Cuomo said that the rate relief is a temporary measure. What does that mean, precisely? What will happen when the relief package expires? Will rates soar once again?
The governor did not rule out the possibility of a municipal takeover of NYAW. That’s a sticky question, though. The Water Authority of Southeastern Nassau County, which was created by the State Legislature to look into the matter, studied the possibility from 2012 to 2016, but nothing came of the effort. After more than five years of deliberations and a $90,000 feasibility study, the WASENC board of directors voted in early 2016 against a local public takeover of NYAW, effectively dissolving the WASENC.
In its final report, the authority said there was no evidence to suggest that a public takeover would save ratepayers money. In fact, the panel suggested, it would likely cost them $73, or 11.6 percent, more per year over the first three decades of the takeover. After that, rates could fall by $75 a year.
The WASENC report came before the recent rate increases that led to mass protests, however. Clearly, state intervention is needed to help resolve this issue for good. Let’s hope Cuomo stays on top of this. Nassau ratepayers deserve at least that.