Liberty Utilities held a town meeting on Nov. 14, at the Bellmore Memorial Library, to listen and respond to customer concerns, which have been on the rise. The company is currently seeking a rate increase from the state Public Service Commission, according to a notice filed on May 5.
If Liberty’s proposal is approved by the PSC, rates in the Merrick service area, which includes Bellmore, Wantagh and Seaford, could increase by as much as 42 percent.
The move has been met with vocal opposition from the community and groups like LI Clean Air Water & Soil. Representatives of the group have asked that Liberty postpone the rate increase while a possible public acquisition by the South Nassau Water Authority is pending.
Deborah Franco, president of Liberty New York Water, spoke at last week’s meeting, sharing the company’s plans and addressing attendees’ concerns about the rising cost of water.
Liberty has refreshed 6,300 fire hydrants, Franco reported, and two advanced treatment systems have been built to remove contaminants, with two more on the way. Additionally, a diesel plant has been converted to clean energy, and three new wells have been put in service.
On the horizon, between 2024 and 2027, a 1,4-dioxane removal treatment plan is being built, as well as a perfluorooctane sulfonic acid treatment plan. Three hundred thousand more feet of new water mains and 3,000 service line replacements will also be completed. After 48,000 water meters have been replaced with Advanced Metering Infrastructure, 100,000 more are to come to allow customers to monitor water consumption.
Finally, Franco said, Liberty Water is planning to improve customer service. “I’m not going to stand here and tell you we don’t need to do a better job, because I know we can do better,” she said. “I think we can do that by investing in local service.”
Liberty has already created a local call center staffed with local representatives, but it is required to open a customer walk-in center as well, which will be in service by the end of 2024. Due to zoning laws, Liberty executives said, adding the walk-in center to their existing offices presented problems, so the company bought a building next door for $750,000 to house the center, where customers can pay bills and ask Liberty representatives questions face to face.
Liberty’s headquarters are at 60 Brooklyn Ave. in Merrick.
The major issue at the meeting was the proposed rate increase, because Liberty customers already pay significantly more for water than people who have public water service from municipalities such as the Town of Hempstead.
“One-third of the water usage charge is for property taxes,” Franco explained. “We serve as a tax collector — we are the conduit for the collection of these taxes. In 2022 we paid more than $23 million in special franchise taxes. All of that we are required to pass along to our customers in their bills.”
Franco said that Liberty is actively involved with lawmakers in Albany as well as local representatives to help mitigate its tax burden, which would reduce water bills.
She urged customers to engage with lawmakers and urge the repeal of the special franchise tax. “We need your help — we can’t do this by ourselves,” she said. “And to the extent your voice can be heard, we want to give you the avenue.”
“We recognize this has a serious impact on the bills you pay,” Franco said of the tax. “We want to have it eliminated in order to help our customers.”
Liberty is also hoping to access state funding and grants to invest in its water-delivery system, to reduce its own costs and customers’ rates.
Customers also voiced concerns about the chemical 1,4-dioxane, which, it was announced earlier this year, has been found in the Merrick service district’s drinking water. Its concentration exceeded the state limit of 1 part per billion, but it is still below the level associated with significant health risks, and the Environmental Protection Agency has not issued a health advisory.
New York State is the only state that (has) a (maximum contaminant level) of 1 part per billion, which is extremely, extremely low,” said Liberty’s water quality manager, Natasha Niola. “…We’re at one grain of sand in a sandbox.”
The next public meeting, which will be held online, is scheduled for Dec. 6. at 7 p.m. Those interested in taking part can register at LibertyEnergyAndWater.com.