Since moving to Valley Stream in late 2001, Dominick Riccardi said, his water use habits have remained largely the same.
He has long been frugal with electricity, gas and water, particularly when watering his lawn in the summer, Riccardi said. But in the past two years, he has seen spikes in his New York American Water bill — spikes that he said are “wrong on so many levels.”
His experience has been similar to that of many NYAW customers on the South Shore, where homeowners 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, through the Public Service Commission, approved the utility’s request for a four-year phase-in of the new conservation rate structure, and in 2018, homeowners began noticing higher bills, in some cases double 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 Valley Stream, the hikes were especially pronounced due to service costs added to their bills, which in an August 2018 hearing were revealed to be the result of infrastructure up-grades such as the construction of iron-removal plants and maintenance, whose costs were passed on to customers. Additionally, because New York American Water is a private company, the expense of property taxes it pays on its facilities is also passed on to customers.
Now, it’s official: New York American Water 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 looked at the average annual cost of water for residents living in each of Long Island’s 48 water districts, revealed that customers in NYAW Service Area 1 paid the third-highest water rates on Long Island, spending, on average, roughly $936 per year.
Only residents living in NYAW’s North Shore-Sea Cliff service area and in the Village of Shelter Island paid more, around $1,125 and $1,090, respectively.
Meanwhile, residents of water districts neighboring Valley Stream, such as the Franklin Square Water District, for example, pay about $498 annually, and in the Village of Rockville Centre, which operates its own water utility, $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 obligations to shareholder 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 supports a public takeover of NYAW, the only privately run water utility on the Island.
In Valley Stream, that prospect is unlikely in the near future, with village officials saying the cost would likely be in the millions of dollars.
“At this time, it looks like an onerous burden on our taxpayers,” Mayor Ed Fare said.
A confusing constellation of standards
While 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 differing lengths of billing periods. Additionally, some districts include service costs in the homeowner’s or business owner’s property-tax bills, while others include them in their water bills.
This, Esposito said, makes comparing bills difficult and obscures the actual cost of water, creating obstacles 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 in January, according to State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, when a state law takes effect requiring all water utility bills to measure use in gallons and to include monthly use comparisons so customers can see exactly how much water they are using.
Kaminsky said he was open to the idea of a public takeover of New York American Water, but acknowledged that it would be incumbent on local municipalities such as villages and towns to make that decision. “If some want to take that approach,” he said, “we’d be more than happy to listen.”
New York American Water 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,” NYAW 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.”
Melissa Koenig contributed to this story.