A deal reached between New York American Water and the state Public Service Commission on Aug. 18 will allow South Shore ratepayers to receive credits on future water bills, after they recently skyrocketed. Ratepayers in Sea Cliff were refunded a similar credit of $68 each earlier this year, after a PSC report revealed that those customers were collectively overcharged $282,000.
“We are fully committed to addressing the concerns of our customers, and this agreement will help provide prompt rate relief,” NYAW Deputy Chief Operating Officer William Varley said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to review every high bill complaint we have received.”
The deal also mandates the appointment of an independent monitor who will review NYAW’s controls and processes “in an effort to help restore customer confidence,” the company said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo reportedly helped broker the agreement between NYAW and the PSC, and previously referred the matter to state Attorney General Barbara Underwood. On July 31, a spokeswoman for state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said his office was reviewing “some issues” related to NYAW.
The agreement came after hundreds of NYAW ratepayers complained that their bills had more than doubled, despite their efforts to conserve water. During a town hall hosted by NYAW and elected officials in East Rockaway on Aug. 9, Varley admitted that customers could use less water than in previous years and still pay more under the new system.
Call for GAO probe
On Monday, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer called for the federal Government Accountability Office to look into NYAW and its eligibility to receive federal funding.
“This is why we’re here,” Schumer said outside Glen Head resident Agatha Nadel’s home, holding an oversized replica of her $1,300 bill from last summer. “The steady drip-drip-drip of dubious charges, rate hikes and bad billing demands enhanced scrutiny from the federal government.”
Schumer said that since New York’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund supported $68 million of NYAW’s long-term debt when it acquired Aqua Water in 2001, the company is eligible to potentially receive more federal dollars from both DWSRF and the Environmental Facilities Corporation via the same fund.
In a recent letter to Comptroller General Eugene Dodaro, Schumer asked the GAO to “conduct a review of American Water’s possible use of the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds [to determine] whether it is consistent with the intent of the law that established the program” (see box).
Schumer was joined by Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat from Baldwin, and County Comptroller Jack Schnirman, a Democrat from Long Beach. Curran said that the county would review monitoring reports regularly to “address recent utility billing concerns, and ensure residents have access to water that is clean and available at a reasonable price.”
Schnirman agreed that the issue deserves greater federal oversight. “Utility costs are a burden to ratepayers, and it’s important that we have collaboration across all levels of government to push for answers and get results,” he said.
Also in attendance were members of North Shore Concerned Citizens, whose mission is to remove NYAW as the community’s water provider and replace it with a public entity. Executive member Bruce Kennedy, of Sea Cliff, said the GAO probe would “provide real remedy for this gross impropriety.” Schumer added that the results of the federal audit could determine whether a public takeover of NYAW is a viable option.
Fight for feasibility study
In the past, North Shore state lawmakers had proposed legislation to fund a feasibility study to see whether a takeover of NYAW by a neighboring water district was possible. Despite calls for federal probes, State Sen. Carl Marcellino, a Republican from Oyster Bay, and Assemblyman Charles Lavine, a Democrat from Glen Cove, have said they believe a feasibility study is still necessary.
“We have a grant that we’ve applied for that would include money for sewer and water infrastructure,” Marcellino said, “and we can take money from that grant and apply it to funding the feasibility study.”
Lavine said the study would determine whether NYAW districts could connect to a public water provider, and also whether the establishment of a new water authority was feasible.
“We’re still waiting to see how much money is going to be made available for this purpose, and [the grant] should be approved within the next several months,” Lavine said.