Few Turn Out To Voice Rate Hike Gripes
Queens residents had their chance to speak out about the proposed water rate increase at a New York City Water Board public hearing last Thursday night, Apr. 26, in Middle Village- but judging by the size of the audience at Christ the King High School’s Hugh P. Kirwan Performing Arts Center, it seemed that few chose to take that opportunity.
Just a handful of residents turned out for the hearing to learn details of the proposed seven percent increase offered by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which must be voted on by the water board in order to take effect. Seven speak- ers in all-four of whom were either lawmakers or a representative of an elected official-took the microphone to make their voices heard about the plan.
Carter Strickland, the DEP commissioner, cited a budget shortfall and a host of unfunded federal and state mandates as the reasons why the proposed water rate hike is needed. However, three elected officials- Assemblymen Phil Goldfeder and David Weprin and City Council Member Daniel Halloran-argued that consumers have been squeezed by higher water rates every year since 1996, and charged that the DEP should find alternative ways to balance its budget.
“We do realize in these economic times that any increase is a burden,” Strickland said during his presentation on the necessity for the proposed increase. In attempting to explain that the economic impact on property owners would be minimal, he stated that the hike, if approved, would result in one- and two-family homeowners paying an average of about $62 more this year, or about $5 more per month.
Regarding the unfunded mandates, Strickland stated that, since 2002, the city has been responsible for $15 billion in upgrades to its sewer and water systems as required under regulations passed by the federal and/or state governments. The improvements included the construction of a new ultraviolet disinfection facility for the Catskill and Delaware aqueducts and improvements at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
As a result, 42 percent of the DEP’s projected budget for the 2013 fiscal year is devoted to paying the “debt service” for these projects, Strickland said. Through negotiations with federal and state officials and refinancing efforts, he stated, the DEP hopes to lower its debt service expenses even further in the years to come.
Operations and maintenance are the second largest expense for the agency, the commissioner noted. As in previous years, the DEP has worked to reduce its operation costs while also defraying future, large expenses with improved maintenance efforts. Strickland noted that this has led to decreases in the number of water main breaks and backups of sewer lines and catch basins.
The DEP has also enacted “Strategy 2011-2014,” a slate of 100 initiatives designed to streamline operations while also improving services to the city, Strickland stated. So far, 63 of the 100 goals have either been achieved or started, including the creation of an automated water meter reading system, online DEP accounts and remote programs to inform customers of potential leaks in their homes or service lines.
The agency has also capped its payments to the general fund over the next three years, which Strickland said would save the agency $98 million over the next three years and help defray costs.
‘Enough is enough’
While Goldfeder, Weprin and Halloran were quick to offer praise to the DEP for its service to the city and its cost-cutting efforts, they each called upon Strickland and the water board to resist the proposed rate hike.
“When an agency is proud that we only have to raise the rate seven percent, we have a problem,” Goldfeder said. “I’m embarrassed as a government official” to hear that claim.
“We pay our taxes. We expect certain services,” he noted. “We expect that when we turn on our faucet that will get clean water and not have to pay an arm and a leg for it.”
Goldfeder told Strickland that he has introduced legislation which would cap annual water rate increases at four percent; though the DEP can propose a water rate increase, the water board-which is under state control-must approve it in order to become official.
“Any cap on water rates … only makes sense if you can cap the costs,” Strickland rebutted. He appealed that state and federal lawmakers assist the DEP in defraying the costs of unfunded mandates in order to prevent future increases in the water rate.
“We need the help of our state and federal delegation,” he added.
Offering similar disdain for the proposed water rate increase was Weprin, who pointed out that the rat has increased by more than 60 percent since 2007. Since 1995, the rate has increased by an average of 4.5 percent.
“Enough is enough,” Weprin stated. “This increase could not have come at a worse time, as many New Yorkers have been deeply affected by the recent economic downturn and are struggling to pay their water bills at the current rate.”
Weprin stated that he supports three bills designed to check the power of the water board to increase the rate. One of the bills would allow the mayor, City Council speaker, city comptroller and public advocate to appoint members to the water board; its current membership is appointed by the mayor alone.
A second bill, Weprin noted, would limit the water board from raising rates by no more than five percent annually or the current rate of inflation. The third piece of legislation, he explained, would block the city from mandating that homeowners pay charges if they are appealing their water bill. ‘Scaring everybody with a nickel’
Finally, Weprin charged that the city should also end the rental agreement that skims millions of dollars from the DEP to the general fund.
“It’s disingenuous when say that we don’t pay as much for water when you divert our money to the city’s general fund,” added Halloran, who said that the proposed water rate increase amounted to an end-around property tax increase.
“We’re scaring everybody with a nickel out of the City of New York,” he said. “Who’s going to be left to pay the bills when the rest of the middle class takes flight to Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk? … It’s not a fair solution to continuously do this. I think there’s got to come a time when even a city agency says, ‘I think we pushed our citizens a bit too far.'”
One of the few residents who spoke during the public hearing, Edward Schubert of Ozone Park, chastised the water board as a “legal mafia,” saying that the annual water rate increases are proving to be an economic drain on working class and middle class homeowners.
“The middle class is really suffering,” he said. “Everything went up too fast in too short of a time.”
The public comment period on the proposed increase ended the day after the Queens public hearing, Friday, Apr. 27. The water board will vote on the proposal at their meeting tomorrow, Friday, May 4. The new rates, if approved, will take effect on July 1, the first day of the city’s 2013 fiscal year.