State PSC launches probe after water rate hikes in Lynbrook, East Rockaway and other areas

Posted

Maureen Blaum recalled being shocked when she looked at her New York American Water bill last month and saw that it was $300 — more than double her usual monthly cost.

“When you’re a senior citizen and living on a fixed income, this really is a big deal,” Blaum said, adding that she discovered she isn’t the only one to see significant rate increases. “. . . There’s a lot of people in this area that have complained.”

Blaum lives on Grant Avenue in East Rockaway, and is one of hundreds of NYAW customers who have seen their bills increase dramatically in recent months. The New York State Public Service Commission has launched an investigation amid complaints by ratepayers who say their bills doubled after new water meters were installed. In an email, PSC spokesman James Denn confirmed the probe.

Blaum had a new meter installed about two months ago, she said. Before its installation, her monthly bill was about $150. In June, it increased to $249, and in July, it jumped to $299. She called the utility, she said, and a representative was scheduled to test her meter to ensure that it was working properly on Tuesday, after the Herald went to press.

According to Blaum, her neighbors have a similar house and sprinkler system, and pay only $70 a month. She added that her water use has been no different than in previous years. “I’m hoping that they do something to correct this, and that there will be some kind of refund,” she said.

NYAW President Carmen Tierno said in an emailed statement that the utility “takes every customer contact seriously. The accuracy of our meters is critical to our service commitment. Our customer service team has already been working with several customers regarding questions about their water bills.”

The company is “conducting a detailed review using advanced analytics and meter testing to confirm their accuracy,” added Tierno, who was to share the methodology used in the review with the PSC on Monday. “The results of our analysis and testing will be shared transparently with our customers and stakeholders. New York American Water is fully committed to our customers and the accuracy of its billing.”

But Joyce Kane, who lives on Arden Road in East Rockaway, said she did not receive a new meter, and her bill was still exorbitant compared with previous years. Kane called NYAW, she said, and was told that she must have a leak, but she did not find one. Then she took to social media and learned that she wasn’t the only one facing higher bills.

Kane’s bill doubled, she said, and she learned of others who saw theirs triple. She called State Sen. Todd Kaminsky’s office, and was told to call the PSC.

“I was very confused,” Kane said of the hike. “There were no toilet bowls leaking. I didn’t fill a pool. An 85 percent increase is ridiculous.”

NYAW was supposed to inspect her meter, but canceled the appointment and will not be able to send someone to her home until Sept. 10.

Kaminsky and Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen wrote a joint letter on July 27, asking the PSC to investigate NYAW following “widespread complaints by American Water customers living in the Town of Hempstead who have experienced a sharp, inexplicable increase in their monthly water bills.”

The two wrote that many residents were told “that they must have a leak or other faulty mechanisms,” but in almost every case there was no leak or other problem.

“When pressed for an explanation, American Water told our offices that these customers must be increasing their water usage,” the letter read. But their constituents, they said, maintain that their water use has either remained flat or increased only slightly.

Kaminsky shared the letter on his Facebook page, leading hundreds of people to share their frustrations with the utility.

Dan Vito, who lives on Glenwood Avenue in Lynbrook, said his water bill had doubled. “I haven’t called them,” he said of NYAW, “but I’m still annoyed about it.”

Kaminsky called the increases “dramatic and questionable. Long Islanders pay a great deal for their water, and can only get it from one source. It’s critical that billing be fair and justifiable.”

Additionally, ratepayers are seeing increases in their bills because of the company’s ongoing infrastructure projects. At a July 26 public hearing on NYAW’s plans to erect a metal building to protect tanks during the winter and to add trees in front of its iron-removal plant in Valley Stream, John Kilpatrick, NYAW’s engineering manager, said that “a small percentage of the water bill [increase] is due to all the infrastructure we’re doing.”

“The cost of the infrastructure gets shared by everyone in our service district,” he added.

This isn’t NYAW’s first run-in with the PSC this year. The agency announced on July 12 that it had found that the company intentionally deceived the state by withholding information from the commission that caused water rates to be set “artificially high.” The agency ordered a special court proceeding against NYAW in response to the findings, and is looking into hiring an independent monitor and possibly requiring the utility’s shareholders to pay the costs of the company’s “failures.”

That same day, State Assemblywoman Christine Pellegrino, a Democrat from West Islip, announced her intention to introduce two bills that could push NYAW out of the county. The first would direct State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office to fund a feasibility study to determine the most efficient, cost-effective and comprehensive means for a public entity to supply water to all 46 Nassau County communities under NYAW’s purview. The second bill would amend a portion of state property tax law that exempts private water companies regulated by the PSC, and that operate within cities of more than a million people, from paying property taxes. The statute does not apply to counties.

A rally organized by residents in protest of the hikes was in the works at press time, but details were not yet available. Check LIHerald.com for updates.

Melissa Koenig contributed to this story.