South Shore residents spoke forcefully at a public hearing on Feb. 26 that reviewed the state’s study to examine a potential public takeover of New York American Water’s private infrastructure on Long Island, making it clear they want public water.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced legislation to begin the study Feb. 3. Thursday's virtual forum allowed residents within NYAW’s Lynbrook and Merrick service areas to share their thoughts with Rory Lancman, special counsel for ratepayer protection, who will oversee the study, and commissioners Diane Burman and Tracey Edwards of the New York State Public Service Commission.
The meeting comes roughly a month after a study by Walden Environmental Engineering determined that NYAW ratepayers within the Town of Hempstead would see savings between $70 and $383 a year if the town acquired a portion of the private utility’s Nassau operation. In some cases, NYAW customers pay five times more for water than residents serviced by a municipally owned entity.
The PSC is also determining whether NYAW should be permitted to sell its Long Island infrastructure to Liberty Utilities for $608 million, a tentative deal that was reached in November 2019.
State Senators Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, and John Brooks, a Democrat from Seaford, were the first to speak at Thursday’s hearing; they both said they favored a public water takeover. (see box) Then it was the public’s turn.
Claudia Borecky, the co-director of Long Island Clean Air Water and Soil, a Merrick-based advocacy group, cited two instances in which ratepayers had benefitted from the sale of a NYAW property, and therefore, in the event of a public takeover, argued that residents should not have to pay for what they already own.
A June 2014 PSC order authorizing the sale of NYAW’s Lynbrook headquarters ruled against company shareholders retaining any profit from the sale of the asset, Borecky said. The same was true of a 2019 sale of NYAW’s Prospect Avenue property to the Village of Sea Cliff, which resulted in North Shore customers splitting a $1.6 million credit on their future water bills.
“It is our view that to be fair and equitable, New York state should compensate New York American Water ratepayers by funding a public takeover . . . and finally give us equal protection under the law,” Borecky said.
Baldwin resident Jack McCloy highlighted the pricing disparity between publicly- and- privately-owned water despite being sourced from the same aquifer. McCloy said that he pays more than $100 for about 11,000 gallons of water, while his mother, a Melville resident, pays only $8 to the South Huntington Water district, a public entity, despite using the same amount.
Susan Melnick, of Merrick, added that the bills are inexcusable due to the quality of the water itself. “My water often is brown, not beige or discolored but brown — sometimes it has an odor,” she said.
Resident Rich Erben was critical of the company’s tiered, conservation rate system, which divides customers into four tiers based on the amount of water they use. The more a customer uses, the higher the rate they pay. “It may be OK if you’re one person – I’m a family of five,” he said. “What’s taking place is really criminal.”
Some speakers expressed their disappointment with Hempstead officials who earlier this year opposed a local takeover of NYAW, arguing that resulting savings would be “diminutive” compared to an almost $500 million cost to acquire the system.
Supervisor Donald “Clavin scoffed at the results of [Walden’s] feasibility study, saying that a public takeover would significantly increase residents’ tax bills,” said Baldwinite Beverly Visconti. “Is he forgetting about those who already pay significant taxes for New York American Water?”
Merrick resident Fred Harrison also acknowledged the town’s reluctancy and recommended the formation of a South Shore water authority to oversee the system, should it be municipalized.
Barbara Hafner, of West Hempstead, added, “After looking at what happened in Texas and the privatization of their utilities, we need to rethink our utilities.”
Residents who missed the meeting but want to comment can fill out a form on the department’s website, or visit www.dps.ny.gov, click on “Search,” enter Case No. 20-W-0102 in the “Search by Case Number” field and click on “Post Comments.”