Avella touts water rate bill

By Alex Robinson

Despite a recent report that said there was not a significant way to prevent citywide water rate hikes without cutting infrastructure costs, state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) hopes to lower some ratepayer’s bills through new legislation.

Avella recently introduced a bill in the Senate that would eradicate a minimum payment for water ratepayers.

“People who live here pay some of the highest taxes in the country. All we’re asking is to be treated fairly,” he told reporters outside his office last Friday, flanked by civic leaders from northeast Queens.

For those who use less than 100 gallons of water per day, minimums are set at $1.27 a day for fiscal year 2014, a rate the city Water Board has proposed to freeze for next year.

Opponents of the minimums said these rates are particularly unfair for seniors and people who live on their own who do not use much water.

“It’s ridiculous to have a minimum amount that has to be paid no matter what,” said Richard Hellenbrecht, president of the Queens Civic Congress. “Let’s go back to a system where water is charged on what is actually used with no minimum and when nothing is used at all there should be no charge whatsoever.”

Stuart Hersh, 80, of Douglaston, lives by himself and has to pay the minimum rate despite the fact he has tried to conserve water in the past.

“It occurred to me there are so many goods and services that provide discounts for senior citizens. Instead, what the water department is doing is punishing us,” he said.

Hersh said he has even seen his lawn dry up in his attempts to save water, only to have to pay for what he had not used.

“I was conserving water only to be hit with a minimum charge. It’s incredibly frustrating,” he said.

Avella said he originally tried to eliminate the minimum water rates when he was in the City Council.

The bill has gotten through the Senate Cities Committee and is now eligible to be brought to the floor for a vote.

Avella said the bill has support from Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), one of the Senate’s de facto leaders, who heads the break-away Independent Democratic Conference.

The Water Board recently announced a 3.35 percent hike in its annual water rate proposal, which was the lowest since fiscal year 2006.

The announcement was met with scorn from a number of councilmen from northeast Queens, including Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), who has called out Mayor Bill de Blasio for the hike.

Lancman criticized the mayor for allowing the city to charge the Water Board a rental payment, which is partially to blame for rate hikes and goes into the city’s general fund rather than to water system costs.

De Blasio had criticized charging ratepayers this “hidden tax” when he was the city public advocate.

The city Independent Budget Office recently released a report that said eliminating the rental payment would, however, not significantly slash rate hikes in the long term because of the system’s ever-growing operating and infrastructure costs.

Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4566.