Governor signs public water bill

Pathway opened for North and South Shore Water Authorities


The long-awaited legislation to create a pathway for the public takeover of New York American Water — a private water supplier serving ratepayers in Merrick, Bellmore and other Town of Hempstead communities — has been signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul.

The bill allows a public acquisition of NYAW, to be replaced by a South Shore Water Authority, whose officials will be named by the Nassau County Legislature and the Hempstead Town Board. It also establishes a North Shore Water Authority, for NYAW customers in the Town of Oyster Bay.

"Water is a necessity that every New Yorker should have easy, affordable access to," Hochul said in a statement. "The historically high rates charged by New York American Water could be reduced through a public takeover of the system, and these new public water authorities give the local governments the legal vehicle they need to pursue the public option."

The bill passed unanimously in the State Legislature in June, by counts of 63-0 in the Senate and 149-0 in the Assembly.

Rate relief for thousands of customers paying high fees for water service is now closer than ever — but there is still much work to be done, according to State Sen. John Brooks.

The value of NYAW’s assets will have to be determined, Brooks said, an amount that may be up for debate. The company’s infrastructure has been improved through the years, and according to Brooks, many of those improvements were funded — and are now owned by — ratepayers, which will affect the company’s overall value.

Funding will also need to be allotted, which may be worked into the state budget by Hochul.

NYAW’s operations could also be taken over by an existing municipal entity, such as the Suffolk County Water Authority, which Brooks said he has been looking into. While the Authority might need additional staffing, with its expertise and equipment, SCWA could complete an efficient, and possibly faster, takeover of operations.

A similar situation may happen on the North Shore, where the Massapequa Water District may take over NYAW’s operations.

Despite the work that still needs to be done, one thing is certain, Brooks said: High water rates have lasted long enough. “We have lived for too long a time with excessive rates,” he said. “I do not believe that we should ever tax water, which is a natural resource required for life.”

Brooks said he plans to introduce legislation that would disallow taxes on water and natural resources. In New York, he added, 4 percent of the state’s population is taxed for its water.

“You go to the supermarket and buy a case of water — that’s tax-free,” Brooks said. For those with private suppliers like NYAW, “if you just flush the toilet, you were just charged a tax.”

“I’m not sure why it took so long,” said Dave Denenberg, a co-director of Long Island Clean Air, Water and Soil and an advocate of the bill. “It’s an important step — but it also feels like déjà vu.”

The Town of Hempstead conducted a feasibility study of a public takeover of NYAW in 2013, and concluded that it could cost the town as much as $80 million (see box). Denenberg contended, however, that a public takeover would save ratepayers and the town money, but to no avail, and the effort ultimately failed.

“Everyone is going to have to hold Town of Hempstead and the Nassau County Legislature’s feet to the fire,” Denenberg said.

He added that over the past three months, his water bills for his Merrick home have been $448, $473 and $396 — a total many times higher than what a typical public water customer would pay in an entire year.

As for who would serve on the board of the South Shore Water Authority, Denenberg and LICAWS co-director Claudia Borecky both suggested that it be led by civic-minded leaders with backgrounds in finance, environmental work or water management. “Everyone should hold them responsible to appoint people who will be open, honest and nonpolitical,” Denenberg said.

“Hopefully the Town of Hempstead sees where we are — close to an improvement to customer service,” Brooks said. “Are they going to serve the taxpayers of the area? There’s no reason not to do it.”