Water Watch NYC

Everything you need to know about water in NYC.


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DEP and Water Board Agree: Revenue Good (But What’s Conservation?)

The DEP has been promoting water conservation for two decades, since the droughts of the 1980s.  But June 17, 2011, the Water Board’s last meeting of the fiscal year, marked the end of an era of “conservation” rhetoric. Gone are the days of saving water and taxpayer money. The future is all about increased sales and maximum revenue: consumption, not conservation.

Source: NYC Water Board Financial Update – 6/7/2011

According to their financial presentation, the DEP collected $2.68 billion from residents last year and surpassed their own revenue projections by 2%. The good news: that’s the first time since 2005 that they haven’t made less money than hoped. The bad news: that’s also almost nine billion more gallons of water used, plus the $51 million more that taxpayers coughed up to pay for it. So why, after worshiping ‘less is more,’ are more water and more revenue suddenly a triumph? Over the past ten years, usage decreased for all but two of them (see the Water Board’s report, page 29). Now, with our water use back up to near 2009 levels, water is just a stream of revenue again.

Pay no attention to how our water rates are higher than ever, every year. (This year’s 7.5% hike to $8.21 is somehow the lowest rate hike since 2006.) All that seems to matter to the DEP and Water Board is that more people get more water and pay more and more for it. The leading concern of the Water Board, according to their Mission Statement, is whether “revenue collections will satisfy revenue requirements of the [Water and Sewer] System.”

The only kind of waste that makes sense in this System is wasted potential: water not sold, consumption not metered, bills not paid. More revenue can be good for the whole city. It just depends on why there’s more of it. More paying customers come naturally with more people in the city, which in turn requires expanded services. Still, the DEP has maintained that distributing more water will bring down its cost to residents. The ‘reduced increase’ of this year’s rate seems to corroborate that a bit, yet the DEP can only continue to reap increasing revenue at the increased expense of residents. Is such public service really self-service or endless debt service? For instance, are “same-customer sales” a real measure of success for a public agency? Does the fact that each customer paid (on average) 19.2% more in October 2010 to use 6% more water than in October 2009 constitute a win for New York City?

As it is, revenue maximization is our current course. Meanwhile, conservation is a promised land saved for rainy days. Where we’ll end up, though, depends on who adjusts the sails.


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Guilty Until Proven Innocent? The DEP Thinks So!

A new feature to the water/sewer rate schedule was discussed at Friday’s (February 27) Water Board meeting. It was proposed that New Yorkers who deny the DEP access to their premises be penalized and automatically switched to the highest possible rate.

Water Board Executive Director Steven Lawitts (he’s also the Acting Commissioner of the DEP) explained it this way (and I’m paraphrasing): If they’re not letting us in, it must be because there is some funny business going on. They’re probably bypassing the meter and using water that they’re not being charged for and they don’t want us to know. Therefore, they deserve to get penalized.

Sure, a penalty is not a bad idea. But it just rubs me the wrong way that the DEP and the Water Board think that it’s ok to assume that someone is stealing water just because access is being denied.

(Just a side note: If you happen to take a look at the DEP website, you’ll notice in the “Service Advisories” section on the right side of the homepage a message that warns people to be wary of “impersonators posing as DEP Employees.” Can you really assume that DEP employees are being denied access to buildings because of theft when the DEP itself is warning people about the potential dangers of letting DEP employees into your building?)

There is another problem here as well. A policy that the DEP claims will be put into use to penalize customers and ensure access will no doubt turn into just another way for the DEP to unfairly raise capital. They have done the same thing with the surcharge for unmetered buildings and the original plan, to ensure that all buildings install water meters, turned into just another revenue stream.

I’m not one to throw around indiscriminate criticism. I mention this because I believe there is a better way of handling it. It is true that there is a problem when the DEP is denied access to a meter. They are forced to estimate consumption and could end losing a lot of money with an inaccurate estimate. (They can also end up charging too much, another scenario that should be avoided.) But instead of the unjust penalty that the Water Board and DEP were discussing last week, why not just issue an Environmental Control Board (“ECB”) violation that states that if access is not granted within a fixed period of time then a penalty will be issued and hopefully one that’s a little more reasonable than the bill cap rate, maybe something in the range of $250 to $1,000.


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DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd Resigns

I just returned from a Water Board meeting where I received independent corroboration of a tip that I received on Wednesday: Emily Lloyd, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, has indeed resigned.

Lloyd became DEP Commissioner back in 2005. Prior to that she had been Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation, director of business development at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and commissioner of traffic and parking for the city of Boston.

In the private sector, she had been executive vice president for government and community affairs and for administration at Columbia University. She leaves the DEP to go back into the private sector; she’s been hired by Trinity Real Estate either as a CEO (the New York Daily News reports) or as a COO (the New York Observer Reports).

(UPDATE 1/29/09: Recently approved Water Board minutes confirm that Lloyd has taken the position of Chief Operating Officer, as the New York Observer has reported.)

There is no indication that she was forced out of her position.

As all this is going on, the DEP’s Deputy Commissioner, Steve Lawitts, is biking through Amsterdam.


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The Uncertain Future of Frontage

Back in June, the DEP announced that fiscal year 2009 would be the last year of frontage billing. Since that time, neither the DEP nor the Water Board has done anything to inform the public about how this will play out. This left us in the water industry puzzled. Was there going to be a new program to replace frontage? Was every building on frontage going to be automatically switched to metered billing? Maybe the buildings on frontage were going to automatically be switched to the Multi Family Conservation Program. The answer to every frontage-related question in the industry became “Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

For months, I and others in my position alienated clients by telling them we just didn’t have any answers to their questions, while the decision makers trolled along doing nothing. Now, at this morning’s Water Board meeting, the DEP announced that they will be extending frontage for one more year.

Besides the indifference that this shows for the people of New York and besides the blatant disregard for the DEP’s announcement in June (reminds me of when they said a rate increase of 11.5% for three years would suffice and then went and raised rates by 14.5% a year later), how can the DEP and the Water Board go forward with this plan without going through the normal process already in place for changing water rates? Reinstating frontage without having the usual formal announcements and Water Board meeting in each borough is just another example of the DEP using the Water Board to circumvent rules that were put in place in order to protect New Yorkers.


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The Resignation of Jim Tripp

New York City Water Board Chairman James Tripp announced his resignation at this morning’s Water Board meeting. Mr. Tripp has an extensive history with the environmental industry, serving as counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund for 35 years. In 1986 he received the New York State Bar Association’s Robert C. Stover Environmental Advocate Award for his efforts to protect the environment via his capacity as a lawyer.

When he joined the Water Board 16 years ago, Mr. Tripp began with a very idealistic approach but was quickly rebuffed by the daunting task of managing a multi-million dollar budget.

We at WaterWatchNYC commend him for his service to the people of New York and wish him luck in all his future endeavors.

Mr. Tripp has been replaced by current Water Board member Alan Moss.


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Notice is Hereby Given

The DEP website recently posted information about the public hearings that the Water Board will be having concerning their proposed midyear rate hike. There will be one meeting in each of the five boroughs on either December 13 or 14. To find out the exact time and location of the meeting in your borough, click here.

These are the meetings that will determine the magnitude of the rate hike so all are encouraged to attend and voice their opinion. For those that wish to testify at the hearing, there is applicable information at the bottom of the page linked to above.


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Indiscriminate Water Board Spending

As the group that oversees the DEP, one would think that one of the major jobs of the Water Board would be to constantly audit the DEP’s $2 billion budget. Not only do they not audit the budget of the DEP, they are, as Marilyn Gelber, former DEP Commissioner and current Water Board member, pointed out, constantly hearing proposals that should be directed at the DEP.

Like any city agency, there is a procedure that must be followed whenever the DEP would like to hire a company to do something. For example, a company must be able to do everything the DEP wants at the lowest price.

The Water Board, on the other hand, does not have this restriction. They are free to hire anyone they want at any price.

It is for this reason that at almost every Water Board meeting, not only is the DEP budget never discussed, but also, companies that wish to secure a city contract without going through the necessary procedures simply present their case to the Water Board and secure a contract that way.


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The Water Board’s Political Gamble

While the Water Board usually only meets five times a year, there is a second meeting scheduled for November 21, 2007, making it two meetings this month alone. In addition to the one upcoming meeting they also have five meetings tentatively scheduled for the second or third week in December and one meeting tentatively scheduled for early January. Why the sudden flurry of activity?

In order to raise water rates, the Water Board must meet once to determine the magnitude of the rate hike (which is what the November 21 meeting is for), then wait three weeks while word is spread regarding the rate hike, then have a public meeting in each of the five boroughs and finally meet once more to make the final decision to approve the rate hike or not.

The DEP wants City Council to approve water lien sales privileges, but the Council is reluctant to allow the DEP to sell a person’s home out from under them until the DEP enacts a third party review process. The DEP contends that a third party review process exists in the form of the Water Board. The problem is that the Water Board has never actually reviewed a water bill. After the DEP’s Deputy Commissioner Steve Lawitts reviews a bill, if it’s still in contention he sends it to the water board at which point it goes to their Executive Director for review. The problem is that their Executive Director is the same Steve Lawitts. In short there is no third party oversight and therefore the DEP and the Water Board just continue to raise rates until the City Council has no choice but to grant them what they want, namely, water lien sales privileges.


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Rate Hike AND Service Termination

The NYC Water Board met this morning to approve the midyear rate hike OR service termination. In the end they chose to do both.

Here are some of the new measures the DEP now has regarding service termination:

  • The DEP is now only required to issue a notice of termination 15 days in advance.
  • The DEP is now allowed to terminate service for smaller amounts owed for shorter periods of time.
  • The Water Board reduced the amount of time that the DEP is prohibited from shutting off water due to the cold weather.
  • The time frame to issue complaints has been reduced.

Water Watch NYC’s opinion on this matter is that the Water Board is putting itself in a very precarious situation. With these new rules, it becomes too easy for an overzealous clerk to mistakenly order service termination on a squeaky clean account. What happens if a homeowner who always paid his $500-$600 dollar bills on time, all of a sudden gets a bill for $5,000-$6,000? He refuses to pay it because it’s obviously a mistake and three months later the DEP terminates his water service.


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Rate Hikes, Liens and Service Termination

The debate over further DEP rate hikes rages on. Today, the New York City Council gathered for a hearing to discuss water bill delinquencies and collection strategies targeting delinquent customers.

The meeting was jointly chaired by Democrats David Weprin of the Finance Committee and James Gennaro of the Environmental Protection Committee. The bulk of the meeting was spent hearing from NYC DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd and NYC Office of Management and Budget Director Mark Page.

After about a half hour of pleasantries and thinly guised praises of the work performed by the DEP since they took over the responsibility of water bill collecting from the Department of Finance, Lloyd immediately got defensive about the DEP’s proposals that the City Council is trying their damnedest to reject.

The first of these proposals is an additional 11.5-18.5% rate increase in water/sewer bills. (The exact rate of the increase is unknown at this point. The numbers being thrown around most at today’s meeting were 11.5%, 18% and 18.5%.) Like Water Watch NYC, the city council is against the implementation of these new rate increases.

According to the DEP’s consultant, Booz Allen Hamilton, the DEP should have the right to levy stand-alone lien sales and terminate service. (To view the complete Booz Allen report, click here. To download it, right-click and select “Save Link As….” Either way, be aware that it’s 111 pages long.) The DEP insists it must raise rates unless it is permitted to terminate service and sell liens.

Water Watch NYC sees these continuous rate hikes as unfair posturing by the DEP, political arm-twisting to try and get the city legislators to comply with their other demands. Clearly, New Yorkers can’t afford these soaring water and sewer rates and when they begin to impress this opinion on the city council, the DEP believes that the city council will have no choice but to allow stand-alone lien sales and the Water Board will have no choice but to allow service termination.

Which begs the question: What’s wrong with service termination and stand-alone lien sales? The problem with service termination is that it doesn’t actually penalize the perpetrators. The vast majority of buildings in New York City are inhabited by parties other than the owner. This means that tenants who are paying their rent will lose their water service because their landlords didn’t pay his water bill.

Additionally, the logistics of service terminations are a nightmare. Turning off city water mains is a process much more complicated than turning off other utilities like gas and electric. Imagine a scenario where the DEP sends representatives to turn off an apartment building’s water. As soon as they get there, the owner sees that they’re serious and he runs down to pay his bill. A few hours later, DEP representatives have to go through the process all over again just to turn the water back on. Part of this process would be inspecting every single apartment in the building to make sure no water fixtures are on so that water doesn’t start gushing as soon as water service is restored.

But even besides these complications, politicians still don’t want the DEP to have the power to terminate service. When the newspapers begin reporting on all of the families who can no longer live in their homes without water the elected officials are the ones that get blamed.

As for the ability to sell liens against water bill non-payment, there really is no downside. So why is the city council so resistant to permitting the DEP this power? The answer is pretty simple. The DEP is a mess. The city council has been asking the DEP to clean up their act for years and the DEP has been reluctant to comply. Sure, they’ve lowered the wait time on customer service phone calls considerably, but they refuse to allow the formation of any kind of oversight committee to supervise their procedures.

Water Watch NYC estimates that nearly 10% of all water bills are inaccurate. The current procedure that’s in place to dispute these bills is severely lacking. The DEP doesn’t accept any evidence that their bills, reads or estimates are incorrect and regards the information offered by their employees as infallible.

For years the city council has asked the DEP to set up an independent body to which people can present their cases of unjust water bills and be judged fairly based on evidence as in any court of law. Because the DEP has refused to censure itself, the city council has refused its request for lien sales.

Of course the DEP responds that part of its cleaning up its act would be to collect delinquent accounts, for which they need to be able to sell liens. The city council responds that there are plenty of other steps that the DEP can take to clean up their act before they can sell liens. And the bickering continues from there.

Meanwhile, while lien sales and service terminations are not yet implemented, the DEP still sees it fit to penalize plenty of upstanding citizens by raising rates as much as 30% for everyone, regardless of whether they’ve paid their water bills or not.

If your council member was present at the meeting you may want to call him or her to commend them for attending the meeting and/or to voice your opinion on the matter.

The following council members were present at the meeting: Gale Brewer (Democrat, Manhattan’s 6th district), Leroy Comrie (Democrat, Queens’ 27th district), Bill de Blasio (Democrat, Brooklyn’s 39th district), Mathieu Eugene (Democrat, Brooklyn’s 40th district), Lewis Fidler (Democrat, Brooklyn’s 46th district), James Gennaro (Democrat, Queens’ 24th district), Vincent Gentile (Democrat, Brooklyn’s 43rd district), Alan Gerson (Democrat, Manhattan’s 1st district), Robert Jackson (Democrat, Manhattan’s 7th district), Oliver Koppell (Democrat, The Bronx’s 11th district), Melissa Mark Viverito (Democrat, Manhattan’s 8th district), Michael McMahon (Democrat, Staten Island’s 49th district), James Oddo (Republican, Brooklyn and Staten Island’s 50th district), Domenic Recchia (Democrat, Brooklyn’s 47th district), Helen Sears (Democrat, Queens’ 25th district), James Vacca (Democrat, The Bronx’s 13th district), Peter Vallone (Democrat, Queens’ 22nd district), David Weprin (Democrat, Queens’ 23rd district).

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