Ratepayers from New York American Water’s Sea Cliff, Lynbrook and Merrick districts attended a public forum in Merrick on Sept. 6, hosted by Long Island Clean Air Water and Soil and North Shore Concerned Citizens, to discuss the groups’ mission to end the private utility’s “reign” on Long Island.
“New York American Water has charged 10 to 12 times more than some of the public water companies charge their customers for the same amount of water,” Jack McCloy, of Baldwin, said.
During the forum, McCloy held a sign comparing his NYAW bill with that of his mother, who receives her water from the South Huntington Water District, a public utility. Over the course of three months, McCloy and his mother each used almost 11,000 gallons of water. His mother’s bill was $8; McCloy’s was $106. “This is criminal,” he said.
In recent months, residents from Sea Cliff to East Rockaway have complained of rapidly rising water bills. The state Public Service Commission approved rate hikes in May 2017, and utility officials said that base rates (excluding surcharges and taxes) were supposed to increase by only 5 percent. But elected officials have said their constituents have seen rates jump by as much as 135 percent.
“During those rate hearings, the Public Service Commission worked against us and for the company,” said Dave Denenberg, a Merrick resident and a co-director of LICAWS. “It’s totally unfair to have a monopoly over a necessity.”
After last year’s rate increase, LICAWS and the Village of Sea Cliff separately filed lawsuits against NYAW and the PSC to annul the rate hike, and stop the company from collecting property taxes from its customers. On Aug. 18, the state reached an agreement with NYAW to reduce rates for financially strained customers on Long Island.
During the village’s public comment meeting on Tuesday night, Sea Cliff Mayor Edward Lieberman offered details about the settlement. Most significantly, on Aug. 20 — two days after the state agreement — the village had accepted $80,000 in grant funds to study the feasibility of switching water suppliers to a public utility. Lieberman noted that State Sen. Carl Marcellino had been instrumental in obtaining the grant money.
Lawrence Ruisi, of Glen Head, a member of North Shore Concerned Citizens, said that the group was also working to arrange an independent feasibility study to determine whether it would be possible to bring public water to Sea Cliff customers from a neighboring district — and looking into further legal action against the company.
“For our community, the settlement is a great first step, but is narrowly focused on our current Article 78” lawsuit against NYAW, Ruisi said. “It only begins to identify a long list of issues we have with New York American Water.”
The new legal action, he said, would address other issues that North Shore ratepayers have faced, including broken meters, poor water quality and the company’s lack of required investment in its Sea Cliff infrastructure.
Ruisi added that while North and South Shore ratepayers “share the struggle and burden of having New York American Water as their private water supplier,” each district comes with its own “unique situations,” and might require an individual solution.
“The Lynbrook district, because of the way it’s designed, might need two or three utilities to come in [and take over], and Merrick as well, since they’re bigger and more fragmented,” Ruisi said.
State Assemblywoman Christine Pellegrino, a Democrat from West Islip, proposed legislation in July that could eventually force NYAW out of the county. One bill would direct state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office to fund a feasibility study to determine the most comprehensive means to supply public water to all 46 communities under NYAW’s purview. A second bill would amend a portion of state property tax law that exempts private water companies regulated by the PSC, and those that operate in cities with populations of more than 1 million, from paying property taxes. The statute does not apply to counties.
“This issue is unmanageable and unsustainable,” said NSCC member Agatha Nadel, of Glen Head. Pellegrino’s bills, Nadel said, “are a good short-term solution, but our only long-term solution is a public takeover.”
Erik Hawkins and Anthony O’Reilly contributed to this story.