Mimi Griffo is among many Oceanside residents who said her water use has largely remained the same, but her bills from New York American Water keep spiking each summer.
“Their increases just don’t seem reasonable or justified,” Griffo said. “I have less people living with me. One child moved out and another is in college. . . . I’m also conservative with my sprinkler use, and all my water use in general.”
Griffo, like many NYAW customers in Oceanside, Island Park and across the South Shore, said that one of the key gripes she has with the utility is a perceived lack of transparency. Her experience has been similar to that of many other homeowners, who 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.
In 2017, the state’s 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, which encompasses Oceanside and Island Park, the hikes were especially pronounced due to service costs added to the bills, which at 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 were passed on to customers. Additionally, because NYAW is a private company, the cost of property taxes it pays on its facilities is also passed on to customers.
Now it’s official: NYAW 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 of in each of Long Island’s 48 water districts, revealed that customers in NYAW Service Area 1 paid the third-most on Long Island for water, on average roughly $936 annually.
Only residents of the Village of Shelter Island and in NYAW’s North Shore-Sea Cliff service area paid more, around $1,090 and $1,125, respectively.
Meanwhile, residents living in water districts near Oceanside and Island Park, such as the Franklin Square Water District, pay just under $500 per year 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, 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,” Esposito said, noting that regardless of the agency, all water on Long Island comes from the same aquifer. She favors a public takeover of NYAW, the only privately run water utility on the island.
But Island Park Mayor Michael McGinty said that a public takeover would prove too costly to execute. “I don’t think it’s doable,” he said. “We have enough finance on our plate without trying to finance the takeover of a water company.”
McGinty also decried the consistent rate hikes across the South Shore, including in Island Park. “It’s a company gouging ratepayers to enrich a corporate structure and shareholders,” he said. “As far as any discussion about American Water doing it for conservation purposes, that’s probably the most specious statement I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard them all.”
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 varying 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.
As a result, Esposito said, comparing bills is difficult, and the actual cost of water is obscured, 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 next January, according to State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, when a state law goes into effect requiring all water utility bills to measure use in gallons, and to include monthly usage comparisons so customers can see exactly how much water they are using on a month-by-month basis.
Kaminsky said he was open to the idea of a public takeover of New York American Water, but acknowledged that local municipalities, such as villages and towns, would ultimately make that decision. “If some want to take that approach,” he said, “we’d be more than happy to listen.”
NYAW officials 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,” the company’s 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.”
Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen said residents were “rightfully fed up” with the rate hikes, and criticized the company for the discolored water flowing from many customers’ taps. She said she had urged the Public Service Commission to investigate NYAW’s practices, especially when it comes to customers seeing increases in their rates despite little or no change in their usage. In addition, Gillen said, she supports legislation to make water bills easier for consumers to understand, and helped created a community task force aimed at providing customers with a direct link to contact NYAW officials, which meets monthly.
“New York American Water’s obligations to shareholder profits should not come before its public responsibility to reliably provide clean water in a cost-effective and easy-to-understand manner,” Gillen said.
Melissa Koenig contributed to this story.