As the South Nassau Water Authority inches closer toward a potential public takeover of Liberty Water, one dominating pain point for existing customers lingers — a proposed rate hike that averages more than 34 percent across Nassau County and would affect some 120,000 customers.
The hike is just a proposal, and the Public Service Commission, the state’s regulatory body, has the final say on greenlighting it.
Deborah Franco, president of Liberty’s New York Water Division, stood in front of a sparse crowd at a public meeting last week at Valley Stream’s Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 1790.
“Many of you tonight are concerned about the level of rates that you all pay,” she told roughly a dozen attendees and a phalanx of Liberty employees. “We are taking two initiatives to mitigate the rate impact.”
Since more than 30 percent of what customers are charged relates to the utility’s property tax obligations from its land use and buildings, the company’s government affairs team is currently lobbying lawmakers in Albany “to repeal, or at least mitigate the impact of these taxes.”
“This way we can remove them from rates and thereby lower the rates that you pay,” Franco said.
Her staff is also looking to acquire state funding programs that can pump enough cash to offset the capital expenses required by law to maintain “safe and reliable service,” costs that otherwise are passed on to Liberty’s customers.
Liberty has justified the rate hike as necessary to pay for its massive infrastructure investments and forecast expenses, but critics also argued that such investments aren’t worth the dramatic climb in rate charges.
“It’s the ratepayer that ultimately ends up paying for these huge investments, and through these charges, the company makes a return on equity,” said Dave Denenberg, co-director of Long Island Clean Water Air & Soil.
Barbara Hafner, former president of the West Hempstead Education Association, reiterated her argument that Liberty charges its customers significantly more for water than what municipalities like the Town of Hempstead charges its customers for the same service.
“My neighbor across the street has public water. What I pay for one month, they pay a third of it in three months,” said Hafner, who lives in West Hempstead. “Bottom line, private companies are for profit, but I do not believe that water should be private or for-profit for anyone.”
While Franco urged customers to push their local lawmakers to support tax abatements to temper the rate hike, some customers put the onus back on Franco and her staff, arguing that the company has not done its due diligence to outline in clear and explicit terms the pending reality of the proposed rate hike in their bills.
And up until this meeting, several said they were not clued into potential steps either they or their fellow customers could collectively take to bring those future costs down.
“I know that you are asking for our help, but how do we get involved?” said Valley Stream resident Trafenna Palmer.
Many also brought up bristling complaints about existing problems with their service including water discoloration, fumbling customer service help, and paying out-of-pocket expenses to curb perceived issues.
“I came here because I’m concerned about the quality of my water,” said Valley Stream resident Steve Thom, who spent upwards of $5,000 on a new filtration system. “It’s really bad and our skin breaks out. I can’t have peace in my house knowing when I fill the tub in my basement, the water is mud brown.”
Palmer, a Liberty customer, was also plagued with the same situation.
“I know my water is not clean,” she said. “I was approached by Home Depot to install this huge filtration system that was going to cost like six grand, so I installed my own basic home filtration system, but it is not of the same caliber.”
Liberty officials said that the discoloration is due to iron and is simply an aesthetic issue that poses no health risks to the individual. The company can help customers rid their water of its brown tint through its neighboring rust removal plants.
Franco also assured that the company is in the thick of huge infrastructure upgrades that are a boon to customers, including an advanced oxidation process treatment facility and a forthcoming walk-in call center.
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