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Report: Baldwin water bills among L.I.’s highest

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“A dramatic increase has been noted once they changed the meters,” Baldwin resident Liz Victoria said, speaking of a recent spike in her New York American Water bill.

Her 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.

“I’ve seen a huge increase ...,” Baldwin resident Larry Halpert said. “We have to get rid of American Water somehow.”

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 last year 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, of which Baldwin is a part, the hikes were especially pronounced because of service costs added to their bills, which in an August 2018 hearing were revealed to be the result of infrastructure upgrades such as the construction of iron-removal plants and maintenance, the costs of which were passed on to customers. Additionally, be-cause New York American Water is a private company, the cost of property taxes that it pays is also passed on to customers.

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 compared 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, which includes Baldwin, paid the third-highest rates on Long Island for water, on average spending roughly $936 annually.

Only residents living in the Village of Shelter Island and in NYAW’s North Shore-Sea Cliff service area paid more, spending around $1,090 and $1,125 respectively.

Meanwhile, residents in water districts near Baldwin, such as the Franklin Square Water District, for example, pay just under $500 annually for water, and in the Village of Rockville Centre, which operates its own water utility, $457.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a Farmingdale-based non-profit, 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,” she said, noting that regardless of the agency, all water on Long Island comes from the same aquifer, and she advocated for 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 differing lengths of billing periods. Additionally, some districts include service costs in the home or business owner’s property tax bills, while others do so in their water bills.

The result, Esposito said, makes comparing bills difficult, and obscures the actual cost of water, 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 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 reporting to this story.

Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story, the Herald quoted a resident who erroneously stated some of his water bills were on the tier of 90 cents a gallon. According to New York American Water, the resident was being charged 90 cents per hundred gallon. We regret the error.