More than 100,000 customers across Nassau County’s South Shore communities may face a steep increase in their private water bills if Liberty Utilities’ planned rate hikes are approved.
Some 113,000 residents between the Five Towns and Seaford receive private water — sometimes paying up to 1,300 percent more for it than Town of Hempstead Water Department customers.
Liberty Utilities, which took over operations from New York American Water in January of 2022, filed a notice with the New York State Public Service Commission on May 5, seeking a cumulative 34.2 percent rate hike across Nassau County.
When Liberty purchased the water company, it agreed to a two-year rate freeze, as previously reported in the Herald. If approved by the state, the proposed rate increases of 42 percent and 39 percent in the Merrick and Lynbrook service areas, respectively, would take effect next year.
Liberty is seeking the increase 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.
The company added that the rate hike would 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.
Customers in the Lynbrook service area, also referred to as Service Area 1, could see an $18.32 increase per month in their water bills. This service area includes dozens of surrounding communities. In the Merrick service area, which encompasses Bellmore, Wantagh, Seaford, Massapequa and parts of Levittown, customers’ monthly bills are projected to increase by $15.74.
The fight for public water in several Town of Hempstead communities has been a long and challenging one. Dave Denenberg, a former county legislator and co-director of Long Island Clean Air Water & Soil, or LICAWS, an advocacy group that has been fighting for the cause, said Liberty’s request is not surprising.
“History keeps repeating itself for residents abused by a private water monopoly,” Denenberg said. Private water companies, he added, “always promise to hold rates for the first year or two, and then they go for these dramatic rate increases.”
In November 2021, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill creating the South Nassau Water Authority, a public entity with the sole purpose of taking over Liberty. The bill required the town to appoint three board members to the SNWA, while the Nassau County legislature was tasked with naming the other two.
By March of last year, five board members were named — Joseph Baker, John Reinhardt and Laura Ryder, each appointed by the town, and Robert Gizzi and Mark Plumer, who were county-appointed.
Ryder resigned from the position to become a town councilwoman, and a new board member, Ella Stevens, was named on May 9. Baker has also stepped down from the board, and his seat has yet to be filled.
Claudia Borecky, co-director of Long Island CAWS, said she expressed her frustrations at the last town board meeting. She added that she would like to see someone like Denenberg fill the vacant seat.
“No one will fight harder than Dave,” she wrote in an email to the Herald. “No one will be more effective in negotiating a public takeover of Liberty water.”
For the state to approve a rate increase, a public hearing must be held, during which a smaller rate hike could be negotiated. A date for the hearing has not yet been set.
Town of Hempstead Supervisor Don Clavin said he was “outraged” by the threat of an increase.
“Only 16 months after buying American Water Company, Liberty Utilities filed for a rate increase of nearly 35 percent with the Public Service Commission,” he said in a statement on May 5. “If approved, the rate increase will allow Liberty to pad the value of the company by foisting this outrageous increase on its customers who are already overpaying for water.
“I, along with the newly formed South Nassau Water Authority, urge the Public Service Commission to reject this unconscionable rate increase,” he added. “Liberty water ratepayers deserve better.”
Reinhardt said he supports Clavin’s rejection of the requested rate increase. “Drinking water is a vital resource and should not be used to generate excessive profits,” he said.
While takeover efforts on the South Shore have been slow, Denenberg said similar public takeovers on the North Shore and in Massapequa are moving along successfully. Liberty has requested to raise the rates in the Sea Cliff service area by 13 percent.
Long Island CAWS said it wants a public meeting addressing the situation with Liberty and immediate action toward a public takeover.
A spokesperson from the Town of Hempstead confirmed that the SNWA would hold public meetings in the upcoming weeks regarding the matter. An announcement will be made once the dates are locked in.
“The reason for this increase, the reason why we’re paying so much, and the reason why we still have this problem,” Denenberg said, “is the Nassau and Hempstead elected officials, who refuse to take advantage of the opportunity that this water authority has for a public acquisition.
“We want to see a public acquisition,” Denenberg added, “and we want to see action towards that immediately.”