North Shore residents spoke forcefully at Tuesday’s public hearing to review the state’s upcoming study examining a potential public takeover of New York American Water’s private infrastructure on Long Island, making it clear they want public water.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced legislation to begin the study Feb. 3. Tuesday night’s hearing allowed residents to share their thoughts with Rory Lancman, special counsel for ratepayer protection who will oversee the study, and commissioners Diane Burman and Tracey Edwards of the New York State Public Service Commission.
The meeting came roughly a month after a study by Walden Environmental Engineering determined that ratepayers in the Sea Cliff Water District would save $430 and $492 per year if water were provided by a public utility. The two most likely means of doing so would be the establishment of an independent North Shore Water Authority or joining an existing entity, such as the neighboring Jericho Water District.
Ratepayers in the district now pay more for water than any other residents of Long Island.
The PSC is also determining whether NYAW should be permitted to sell its Long Island infrastructure to Liberty Utilities for $608 million, a tentative deal that was reached in November 2019.
Several of the North Shore’s state and local elected officials, Republicans and Democrats, were the first to speak at Tuesday’s hearing, and all said they favored a public water takeover. Then it was the public’s turn.
Bruce Kennedy, Sea Cliff’s village administrator and the president of the public water advocacy group North Shore Concerned Citizens, said that all evidence suggests that a municipal takeover of NYAW’s North Shore territory would be less expensive for residents in the long run. He also noted that the share price of American Water Works has increased more than 400 percent since NYAW took over the district in 2012. This shows that ratepayers are being used to finance corporate profits at their own expense, Kennedy said, which would likely continue under Liberty.
“As we all know, water is a basic requirement of our health and existence,” Kennedy said. “Therefore, Long Island’s drinking water supplies must be considered a public trust, and not [be]entrusted to private companies whose priority is their stockholders and corporate interests.”
The establishment of the North Shore Water Authority, Kennedy said, would be the quickest way to bring municipal water to the area, and thus it was the preferred method. But, he said joining a neighboring district would be acceptable as well, if need be.
“Our community has remained united for years to rid ourselves of private water,” Kennedy said. “We will accept nothing less than municipal water for our community.”
Lloyd Nadel, of Glen Head, said that roughly 90 percent of households in Nassau County receive water service at a reasonable cost with superior customer service, which, he said, is not the case for North Shore residents. He said that he and he wife, Agatha, NSCC’s director, compared their 2018 water bill with that of their neighbors down the block who receive municipal water from Jericho. Although their plots are nearly identical, and the Nadels had fewer people living in their house year-round, their bill exceeded their neighbors’ by roughly $2,000.
The treatment of water contamination is also an issue when it comes to private water, Nadel said. Last year, NYAW’s Glen Head well was one of dozens of Long Island wells found to contain emerging contaminants, with Glen Head containing unhealthy amounts of the chemical perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS.
While the well was not unique in its contamination, ratepayers are unique in their responsibility for paying for treatment, which is projected to cost up to $3.4 million. Municipal water districts receive state grants to treat their water. Since NYAW is a private company, however, those grants do not apply to its territory.
“In short, there is no logical reason to authorize the petitioner’s application in this proceeding, unless you’re a shareholder in one of these monopoly companies,” Nadel said of NYAW’s sale to Liberty. “It is certainly not in the best interest of the public to continue being hosed by a private water provider, regardless of the name.”
His wife spoke next, and urged Lancman and the PSC to listen to the public and not those who might be paid by corporations to counter their efforts. She also noted several other instances in the U.S. in which districts have succesfully transitioned from private to public water. Not only were ratepayers better off, she said, but most of the private utilities’ employees were retained when a district went public, limiting job losses. In NYAW’s case, upper-level executives who were not retained could be transferred.
“This is a fact: Obtaining affordable public water is not a difficult problem to solve,” Agatha Nadel said. “We are giving you the outline. Please, please, let’s get this done and over the finish line.”
Joe Lopes, of Glen Head, a NSCC co-director, said he has worked as an energy consultant for utility companies for roughly 40 years. Water, he said, is a basic requirement of life that should not be entrusted to private companies that prioritize corporate interests over the communities they serve. NYAW has regularly betrayed the trust of its ratepayers, Lopes said, as shown by inflated costs, poor customer service and issues with water quality.
This has all been allowed by the PSC in the past, Lopes said, so he urged state officials to facilitate bringing municipal water to NYAW’s Long Island districts. The problem would not be solved, he said, if the infrastructure were to be sold to Liberty.
Lopes noted that similar feasibility studies were conducted in NYAW territory in the Town of Hempstead and Massapequa, both of which showed that public water would be less expensive for ratepayers there as well. He also said that bills are making their way through the State Senate and Assembly to establish the public North Shore Water Authority, making the likelihood of a transition to public water even greater.