Vanessa Leigh is among many Lynbrook and East Rockaway residents who say their water use has largely re-mained the same, but their bills from New York American Water keep spiking each summer.
“They just left my house this morning,” Leigh, of Lynbrook, said on Saturday. “No leaks, no explanation why my bill was tripled.” Leigh said she has used the same sprinkler system each summer, but her bill is now $172 per month. She previously paid roughly $57 per month.
East Rockaway resident Tracey Ciccarelli McLaughlin said she had her water meter changed last year and installed a pool, but initially did not see a change in her bills. She added that she has used the same in-ground sprinkler system for nine years, but last month her bill suddenly jumped from $95 to $250, and she wasn’t sure why.
Leigh’s and McLaughlin’s experiences are similar to those of many other homeowners, who have seen a sharp rise in their water bills over the past two years. Some of the added costs have been attributed to the implementation of conservation rates intended to encourage homeowners to use less water.
In 2017, the state’s Public Service Commission approved New York American Water’s request for a four-year phase-in of the new conservation rate structure, and last year homeowners began noticing higher bills — in some cases, double or triple what they had paid the previous year for similar water use, according to previous Herald reporting.
For customers in the utility’s Service Area 1, which encompasses Lynbrook and East Rockaway, the hikes were especially pronounced due to service costs added to the bills, which at a hearing last August were revealed to be the result of infrastructure upgrades, such as the construction of iron-removal plants and maintenance. The costs were passed on to customers. Additionally, because NYAW is a private company, the cost of property taxes it pays on its facilities is also passed on to customers.
Now it’s official: NYAW customers on Long Island typically pay more than those who get water from publicly owned and operated utilities, according to an Aug. 14 report by the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a Farmingdale-based advocacy group.
The report, which compared the average annual cost of water for residents of each of Long Island’s 48 water districts, revealed that customers in NYAW Service Area 1 paid the third-most on Long Island for water, on average roughly $936 annually.
Only residents of the Village of Shelter Island and NYAW’s North Shore-Sea Cliff service area paid more, around $1,090 and $1,125, respectively.
Meanwhile, residents living in water districts near Lynbrook and East Rockaway, such as the Franklin Square Water District, pay just under $500 per year for water, and those who live in the Village of Rockville Centre, which operates its own water utility, pay $457.
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, attributed the higher costs to property taxes as well as New York American Water’s obligation to maximize shareholders’ profits.
“Water should not be a money-making venture,” Esposito said, noting that regardless of the agency, all water on Long Island comes from the same aquifer. She favors a public takeover of NYAW, the only privately run water utility on the island.
A confusing constellation of standards
Throughout the process of compiling her group’s report, Esposito said, her team encountered wide discrepancies in how water utilities and districts bill residents, with different metrics — such as cubic feet and cubic meters — used to measure water, as well as varying lengths of billing periods. Additionally, some districts include service costs in home or business owners’ property tax bills, while others do so in their water bills.
As a result, Esposito said, comparing bills is difficult, and the actual cost of water is obscured, creating an obstacle to conservation efforts.
“People don’t understand that just because water is inexpensive doesn’t mean it’s not valuable,” she said. “To get people to understand the true cost of water, the total cost needs to be in the bill.”
The issue of differing billing standards will be at least partially addressed next January, according to State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, when a state law goes into effect requiring all water utility bills to measure use in gallons, and to include monthly usage comparisons so customers can see exactly how much water they are using on a month-by-month basis.
Kaminsky said he was open to the idea of a public takeover of New York American Water, but acknowledged that local municipalities, such as villages and towns, would ultimately make that decision. “If some want to take that approach,” he said, “we’d be more than happy to listen.”
NYAW officials acknowledged the added expenses passed on to home and business owners due to its status as a private utility, but maintained that it provides some of the best service in the area. “New York American Water is aware of the inequity of the tax system, which places a burden on New York American Water customers while all other Long Islanders are exempted,” the company’s president, Lynda DiMenna, said in a statement. “For our Service Area 1 customers, taxes make up 33 percent of their bill. We will continue to work with elected officials to right this wrong for the benefit of our customers. Furthermore, we would caution against comparing rates between public and private water systems, as there are significant differences between the two in terms of taxes, rate structures and investments.”
East Rockaway Mayor Bruno Romano said the rates impact residents who already pay exorbitant taxes.
“The sharp rise in our water bills directly affects our residents by way of our budget,” Romano said. “These costs are taxpayer costs, who already pay higher rates for their own property water service.”
Romano added that the village rents its fire hydrants from NYAW and that the price spiked by 10 percent over the past year, which caused a $14,000 increase. He also noted that the village has several municipal buildings, which include Village Hall, the Department of Public Works, Fire Department headquarters, the Recreation Department, the library and the Senior Center, which have seen a combined increase of about $8,000 in their water bills over the past three years.
Lynbrook Mayor Alan Beach did not respond to a request for comment at press time.
Melissa Koenig contributed to this story.