On August 13th, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (or DEP) announced the decision to deny public access to the Customer Information System (or CIS), despite the fact that it has allowed that access for over 30 years. This change in policy is set to go into effect on September 13th. According to the DEP, the service is being shut down due to the outdated nature of the system’s technology. However, no replacement for the system has been brought forward, and the DEP will continue to use the service themselves. What has been touted as a necessary technological update appears to be a thinly veiled excuse to deny access to vital water billing information to the general public, with the only beneficiary being the DEP.
Currently, CIS provides water billing information for New York City properties going back to 1986. What makes this service so important is that water billing errors at a property can be readily identified based on the data that has been collected over those years. Once an error has been identified, an appeal can be written to correct and reduce the bill. However, without the ability to check for these errors in CIS, the DEP would be the only entity with this information, completely compromising any kind of consumer protection. In future water bill disputes, property owners will have to simply accept whatever ruling the DEP gives, and will have no evidence in their corner to try to reduce the bill. The DEP could simply ignore any data available only to them and determine that an incorrect bill was correct, with property owners having no way of disputing it. This change in policy creates a broken system that wipes away all billing transparency, and more or less incentivizes the DEP to legitimize incorrect water bills at the cost of New York City property owners.
Withholding this information would also have a large impact on the sale of properties in the area, as prospective buyers and sellers would have limited knowledge on what regular water billing and usage would look like for a property. This type of data is definitely something that would have an effect on the value of a property. The lack of data would leave buyers in the dark or mislead them when attempting to make a purchase, and could make selling properties unnecessarily difficult.
It is absolutely clear that the only entity benefiting by this change would be the DEP, as any unchecked billing errors would put money in its pocket, to the direct detriment of the consumers. Not only would this affect current property owners, but members of the real estate industry would be left in the dark in terms of gathering important information regarding the properties they’re working with. It would be a shame for such a blatantly one sided policy change to go into effect, considering the vast number of people who would be disenfranchised by the change. The DEP claims that this is an unfortunate but necessary change due to outdated technology, but the fact that the technology will remain the same and the DEP will continue to use CIS tells a different story.