RESIDENTS EXPRESS FRUSTRATION AND SKEPTICISM AT NY AMERICAN WATER COMMUNITY MEETING
February 13 -- This past Tuesday evening, New York American Water Company officials met with community members to discuss the high charges that many customers say they have been seeing on their water bills since the publicly traded company took over as the water service provider for the area from Aqua two years ago. George Pombar, President of the Glen Head/ Glenwood Civic Associations, arranged the meeting that took place at the high school cafeteria About 30 residents were in attendance. Representatives of the company were available beforehand to sit down with individual customers who had questions about their bills.
After introductions, Brian Bruce, Vice President for Operations of NYAW gave a brief presentation during which he explained the company's capital improvement plans as well as the components that make up customers' water bills.
Pointing to a chart showing capital spending for the Sea Cliff Water Service area,which includes Glen Head, Sea Cliff, and much of Glenwood Landing and Old Brookville, Mr. Bruce said that the water company was investing heavily in infrastructure, with nearly $1.8 million in capital expenditures last year and nearly $2 million anticipated this year and $2.34 million in 2015. The improvements he said include water meter upgrades, water main replacements, service replacements, water production improvements and the Glen Head tank replacement.
With regard to water usage rates, Mr. Bruce asserted that they had not increased since 2006, the last time the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) granted permission for such a hike. When NYAW took over from Aqua, he explained, the company agreed that it would not seek a rate increase for three years. And while the utility will be applying to the PSC for such an increase effective in 2015, the higher water bills that customers have received, he maintained, are due to other factors. For some customers, he explained, spikes were caused by adjustments that had been made because of previous under-billing by the company when it had acquired the system from Aqua; for others, there has been increased water usage; and for all customers, a property tax surcharge has been added to their bills.
About 30% of a customer's bill, Mr. Bruce said, is a result of property taxes that the utility pays, which have increased from $1.1 million in 2011 to $1.5 in 2013. He continued that the company has been aggressively challenging its assessments, and any savings it sees from those challenges are returned to customers. In response to questioning regarding the surcharge, Mr. Bruce said that 85 cents of every dollar of the company's property tax bill is passed on to its customers, which is the allowance granted by the Public Service Commission.
Several community members expressed skepticism at Mr. Bruce's explanations, and as the discussion period wore on, some of the questioning towards the end of the meeting, became quite heated.
Mr. Pombar pressed company officials to explain "how it is that bills have become so outrageous," and said that many residents had had "horrible experiences" dealing with the company's customer service operators. "When Aqua was here, they were high," he said, "but not this high."
Other questioning continued along similar lines, with residents sharing details of their bills - one, a $300 quarterly bill for a couple living in a 1500 sq. ft. home; another , who said he lives on a three acre property, stated that he paid $8,000 to the water company over the past year, significantly more, he added, than his neighbor who lives on an acre and a half in the Jericho water district.
In response to Mr. Bruce's assertion that increased usage was a cause of some customers’ high bills, some residents said that their usage was the same as it had been under Aqua, and that too many people were seeing dramatic increases in their bills for that to be the reason. Some questioned the accuracy of the meter readings. One resident said a recent bill indicated that her household's water usage for a 90 day period was 450,000 gallons - "9,600 gallons per day - that is absurd," she said, when last year during the same period it was 1,000 gallons per day. Mr. Bruce explained that drier and hotter weather could explain increased usage system-wide, as he said was shown in the chart he had displayed earlier indicating that the system delivered 10% more in 2013 than in 2011. In addition, he emphasized the importance of addressing water leaks, such as in sprinkler systems.
A former resident of Roslyn Harbor who now lives in Roslyn, said that he pays $.80 per 1,000 gallons, while those in American Water's service area pay $4.60 per 1,000 gallons. He added that while he must pay $2,200/year in Roslyn Water District taxes, he believes that he is getting a much better deal, than if he were living in the area served by NYAW, despite the fact that residents in the Sea Cliff service area do not pay a water district tax. The $2200, he said a bit later, is tax deductible, while the 85% passed onto customers in NYAW's area is not.
Similarly, another resident compared rates in the Jericho Water District, which he said are among the lowest in Nassau County, to American Water's, which he said are the highest. He asked for an "apples to apples" comparison of the rates. "If we backed out the school taxes," he continued, "would we be comparable to Jericho?" A NYAW official explained that all costs their customers pay appear on a single bill, whereas with Jericho or Roslyn, while their water bills will be lower, residents there pay a separate water district tax that appears on their tax bill. The official referred back to the Rosyln resident, who asserted, that despite the water district tax, he believes he pays significantly less for water than Sea Cliff service area residents.
At one point, the resident with the $8,000-a-year bill asserted that residents “are held captive” to the company and the rates it charges. He repeatedly said that the company's presentation was "an embarrassment," as in his view officials had come unprepared to respond to questions regarding the NYAW's rates relative to public water districts such as Jericho and Roslyn. The gentleman proposed that the community pursue a lawsuit against NYAW.
Another resident interjected that it is the Public Service Commission that is the problem, because it allows the company to set the rates.
In addition to the water bill charges, audience members raised other issues. One resident asked about the water line and sewer line insurance solicitations customers had been receiving from a subsidiary of American Water – American Water Resources (AWR). Mr. Bruce said that AWR has been asked to stop sending the letters for sewer line insurance, and that if anyone has paid for that particular protection, NYAW would help them get their payment refunded.
Another resident expressed concerns about radio frequency (RF) emissions from cell phone panels attached to the Glen Head water tower. Mr. Bruce responded that they were installed before NYAW acquired the tower, and that there are contractual obligations that they must fulfill with the cell phone service provider who installed them. Any income generated from the use of the tower for that purpose, he said, is credited back to customers.
As the meeting drew to a close, Mr. Pombar offered his thoughts, saying that there would be a continuing dialogue through the local Civic Associations and efforts to get local politicians involved. In addition, he continued, there have been conversations with Jericho and other water companies to see what it would take for them to become the area’s water service provider. And if that approach did not bear fruit, he said there are some in the community who support "buying out" the company, and the area becoming its own water district.
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Above are slides shown by NYAW's Vice President for Operations Brian Bruce at Tuesday evening's meeting.