Two virtual hearings took place last week with the state’s Public Service Commission, regarding Liberty Utilities’ proposal to increase water rates in the Long Island communities it serves by a cumulative 34.2 percent. The hearings gave the public an opportunity to voice concerns to the commission about why such an increase is unfeasible for many Liberty customers.
Liberty filed a notice with the commission on May 5, seeking a proposed rate increase of 42 percent and 39 percent in the Merrick and Lynbrook service areas, respectively. The company also requested a 13 percent hike in the Sea Cliff service area on the North Shore.
Some 120,000 residents of Nassau County receive water from the privately owned utility company. Liberty purchased the previous water provider, New York American Water, in January 2022, and agreed to a two-year rate freeze.
The company is now seeking the rate change to offset the cost of “necessary plant investments, high tax burdens, the installation of advanced metering infrastructure, proposed low-income and arrearage management programs, and a fee-free program for electronic payment of Liberty NYW invoices,” according to the filing.
Liberty added that the rate hike would also help cover the cost of 17 new jobs that were created at its Merrick offices, as well as “the implementation of a low-income program” to provide aid to certain customers.
Any type of rate increase approved by the state would go into effect next year and impact customers who live between Massapequa and the Five Towns on the South Shore.
During the Sept. 15 hearings, those wishing to comment by pre-registering could either call in on the phone, or take part in the meeting over Zoom. Those choosing to only watch the meeting could do so on YouTube, where it was live streamed.
Administrative law judges Tara Kersey and Dakin Leakes presided over the hearings. A court reporter was also present, to provide a thorough transcript of the hearing to each commissioner. The Public Service Commission, led by chairperson and chief executive officer Rory Christian, comprises six commissioners.
“My role here today (is) really to be an active listener,” Commissioner Diane Berman said. “I appreciate everyone participating, and I look forward to hearing your comments.”
The consensus from meeting participants was the Public Service Commission should not agree to any sort of rate increase for Liberty Utilities — especially one that could nearly double some customers’ bills.
Speaking out against the rate increase was Laurie Wheelock, the executive director of the Public Utility Law Project, or PULP, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income utility customers.
“PULP sometimes hears general conversations that water bills are usually the lowest of all the utility bills, so it should be easier for people to pay,” she said. “But the truth is that when someone is struggling to even pay that water bill, it doesn't mean that they aren't struggling to pay all the other entities and bills and things like mortgage, rent, food and medicine, and in particular utility bills, because every cost is significant. The increase that Liberty is proposing is real money to real people.”
Those participating in the hearings also brought up the issue surrounding the South Nassau Water Authority, which Gov. Kathy Hochul established in November 2021, as a public entity to take over Liberty’s operations. The water authority held its first meeting in July.
Several participants of the hearings asked that the decision on the rate increase be delayed until it is known if the public entity can properly execute a takeover.
“Stay this (proposal) or reject it and tell Liberty to come back after good faith negotiations,” said Dave Denenberg, co-leader of Long Island Clean Air Water & Soil, an advocacy group.
Similar public entities were created on the North Shore and in Massapequa, so customers in these areas can facilitate takeovers of the portions of Liberty that serves them.
John Reinhardt, board member of the water authority, also asked that the decision be delayed.
“The South Nassau Water Authority has submitted an offer letter to Liberty and is awaiting response,” he said. “Liberty has cooperated to date with providing us materials. And I believe at this point, as it has been stated numerous times, a stay on this rate case and this rate increase while these negotiations continue in good faith should be put in place to protect the ratepayers in the South Nassau Water District, as well as the North Shore and the Massapequa water districts.”
Along with comments made during the meeting, the commission is also accepting written statements. Town of Hempstead officials, who played a role in establishing the water authority, said “they implore the decision to reject this proposal.”
“We are calling for the New York State Public Service Commission to reject this proposal,” read a letter to the commission, signed by Supervisor Don Clavin, Councilman Chris Carini and Councilwoman Laura Ryder. “Furthermore, we are asking Governor Kathy Hochul and New York State to initiate a fully state-funded public takeover of Liberty Water assets. Additionally, we are calling on New York State to reintroduce the previously stalled franchise tax exemption that would further provide relief to ratepayers. By following through on these solutions, we can ensure that local residents are provided with the highest quality of water service at the lowest possible cost.”
The commission will be accepting public comments through Oct. 18 regarding the Liberty rate hike before a decision is reached. Comments can be submitted through mail, on the phone or electronically (see box). For the most up to date information, visit DPS.NY.gov and search case No. 23-W-0235.