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County looks to plug leaks amid backlash over New York American Water rate hikes

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In the Lakeview Peace Garden, water trickles down a fountain into the ground, where it is recycled back up to the fountain. For years, Nassau County paid $50 a month to keep that water running — but in July, the bill came in at more than $4,300.

New York American Water, a Merrick-based private utility that is facing a backlash for hiking the bills of its residential customers, supplies the water to the site. County Executive Laura Curran said the company has not explained why the bill went up. “Honestly, this makes me angry, because our taxpayers are expected to foot this 80-times increase,” Curran said.

County Comptroller Jack Schnirman said that county officials have looked for leaks or other problems that might have caused the bill to go up, but have found nothing.

Questioning the bill, Schnirman said, is just one of the steps the county is taking to save taxpayers money on future utility bills. “Every leak, every light left on and every out-of-whack utility bill costs us money,” Schirman said. “We can’t be wasting our most precious resources because some people don’t like facing uncomfortable questions.”

The bill for the Lakeview site was delivered to the county as an investigation into its accounts with NYAW found that money is “literally leaking out of Nassau” in a variety of ways, Schnirman said.

Substantial water leaks, sometimes costing tens of thousands of dollars, have been found at various sites. According to Jake Mendilinger, an NYAW spokesman, several significant leaks have been found at North Woodmere Park. The utility company has identified the location of two of the leaks, and is trying to determine where others might be.

“NYAW is waiting on the county to provide additional plans, which will enable NYAW specialists to pinpoint the exact locations of the leaks,” Mendilinger said. “It is critical that the county not delay repair of these leaks, as with each day thousands of gallons of water are wasted at the expense of the taxpayers.”

The county, Schnirman said, is negotiating a leak adjustment credit with NYAW to recoup some of that money. A leak adjustment credit is money given back to a customer if a leak is the fault of the utility.

“The reality is we’ve incurred tens of thousands of dollars of costs above what we would normally expect,” he said when asked how much money the county expects to get back, “and so we’ll be quite aggressive in trying to recoup as much of that for the taxpayers.”

But in the case of the Lakeview site, no such leaks have been found. New York American Water said it was reviewing the meter there to ensure its accuracy and will inform the county of its findings when all tests are completed.

Schnirman said the county has also wasted money by paying up to $150 in administrative costs for water accounts during the winter, when parks use no water. His office is looking into whether those accounts can be turned off during the colder months, and if similar savings can be achieved with other utilities. “This is a situation happening all over Nassau County,” Schnirman said, “and we’re glad it’s going to be stopping. These savings can really add up.”

Curran added that the county’s Department of Public Works will install special monitors to ensure that leaks are found as soon as possible. She and Schnirman encouraged residents to make sure they too do not have leaks, and do a thorough review of their water bills to find ways to save money.

Many NYAW customers have seen their bills more than double under the company’s four-tier billing structure, approved by the state Public Service Commission last year. Those in the Lynbrook service area, which stretches from Valley Stream to Baldwin, have had to pay more for water than other areas, even if they use similar amounts or less than others elsewhere.

The PSC and NYAW recently reached an agreement to halt the billing system and give credits to impacted customers — but neither will take effect until early 2019, because several rulings must be made by the state and the courts to make the deal official. New York American Water will also be appointing an independent monitor to oversee its controls and processes.

Several residents and advocacy groups have called for a public takeover of NYAW. Schnirman said, “That’s something I’ll be following closely.” Curran said, “It’s certainly something that should be looked at,” but cautioned that whoever takes it over will have several assets to buy from NYAW. “It’s more complicated than you think,” she said.