Water Watch NYC

Everything you need to know about water in NYC.


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What No One Else is Telling You About Next Year’s Water Rate

Every year the Water Board raises our water rates at the request of the DEP. All the news outlets, even if they don’t bother covering the Water Board meetings during the year, attend the meeting in April when the rate hike is discussed. They make a note of how much the rates are going up by and then go to press. This is why most news outlets missed the really big news about next year’s new rate schedule.

After the DEP and Water Board discussed the 14% rate hike and all the journalists pocketed their pads and left, Steve Lawitts (Acting Commissioner of the DEP) and Alan Moss (Chair of the Water Board) rolled out two of the most anti-consumer documents ever written by the DEP. The DEP has actually been quite clever (read: devious) in putting these documents together. They’ve published the regulations governing two penalties in three different amendments, each of which on its own seems pretty harmless but all of which, when taken together, paint a pretty grim picture for New Yorkers. (Even the names they chose for these amendments–Denial of Access and Theft of Services–appear to be clever tricks. Who wouldn’t want to punish thieves? Unfortunately, actual theft has very little to to do with the Theft of Services regulations.)

Apparently the DEP has had trouble getting access to many buildings in the city and feels it necessary to set up penalties for denial of access. They’ve also defined fifteen items that qualify as “Theft of Service.” For both “Theft of Services” and “Denial of Access” (during the last water board meeting they explained that they equate denial of access with theft of service because if you don’t allow them access it must be because you are stealing water and don’t want them to know about it) stiff penalties, ranging from just over $3,500 to just under $2,000,000 annually, will be imposed. For the actual language used by the DEP in these new regulations, please see the three amendments that I have linked to below:

  1. 20090403_proposed_rate_schedule_denial_of_access_-_theft_of_service_charges_web_draft.doc,
  2. 20090406_denial-of_access_regulation_web_draft.doc,
  3. 20090406_theft_of_service_regulation_web_draft.doc

Here are the main problems with these new regulations:

  1. The DEP equates suspicion with actual guilt. There is no requirement for the DEP to prove that any theft is taking place. Theft of Services is not defined as someone stealing water but rather as a violation of one of a series of actions unrelated to actual water consumption, like breaking a meter’s DEP seal or moving or obstructing a meter. The DEP doesn’t even need to prove that the owner performed any of these actions. If they were done, it doesn’t matter who did them–a disgruntled tenant, an uncaring vandal–the owner is responsible.
  2. The magnitude of the penalty doesn’t even come close to fitting the supposed crime. The charge is based on the size of the building’s main or mains and is entirely arbitrary and is designed to bring maximum revenue to the DEP. It doesn’t reflect any form of water consumption actually used or assumed to have been stolen.
  3. In order for “Denial of Access” to apply, the DEP must simply send a letter to the owner that they have on file. For such a large penalty shouldn’t the DEP be required to go a little bit out of their way and ensure that whoever is listed as the owner on their records is actually the owner and then send the actual owner a notice of demand via certified mail with a read receipt?

To go into more detail on item number 2, the DEP published a very confusing chart detailing the penalties for both Denial of Access and Theft of Services (by their definitions). Here it is:

Meter Size –       Annual Attributed Consumption Rate (Gallons per Year)

5/8″ and less                                                                              400,000
3/4″ or more and less than 1.5″                                              1,000,000
1.5″ or more and less than 3″                                                 3,000,000
3″ or more and less than 4″                                                    5,000,000
4″ or more and less than 6″                                                  10,000,000
6″ or more and less than 8″                                                  25,000,000
8″ or more and less than 10″                                                50,000,000
10″ or greater                                                                     200,000,000

You’ll notice that the Annual Attributed Consumption Rate is given in Gallons per Year. Anyone who has ever examined their water bills will also know that the DEP charges for water based on hundred cubic feet (hcf) of water consumed not gallons, thus making it difficult to determine how much the DEP actually intends to charge for these violations. Let me make it easier by converting annual attributed consumption in gallons to an annual cost in dollars. Please note that the figures that I’m about to set forth are different than the figures presented at the last Water Board meeting. The costs that we were told about at the last Water Board meeting were given at the fiscal year 2009 water rates. These regulations go into effect in fiscal year 2010, when the rates are likely to be 14% higher. Here are the charges of the annual attributed consumption rate by meter size for fiscal year 2010:

Meter Size –                                                          Annual Attributed Cost

5/8″ and less                                                                   $        3,641.64
3/4″ or more and less than 1.5″                                                9,104.22
1.5″ or more and less than 3″                                                 27,312.79
3″ or more and less than 4″                                                    45,521.37
4″ or more and less than 6″                                                    91,042.74
6″ or more and less than 8″                                                  227,606.84
8″ or more and less than 10″                                                455,213.83
10″ or greater                                                                    1,820,855.00

That’s right, if you own a building with two 8″ mains and the DEP determines that you have denied them access for one year, you owe them just under a million dollars. What’s more, if they decide that you’re stealing water (lets say some thug broke the seal on your meter) you are going to be charged these rates going back four years unless you can prove that the violation occured more recently.

Hopefully now you understand what the DEP actually intends. To ensure that you are protected  from these unjust penalties, it is important that you join us in fighting the Water Board on this. There will be a city council hearing on Tuesday, April 28 at 10:00 am in the Council Chambers of City Hall. We hope to see you there. Additionally there will be one Water Board hearing in each of the five boroughs for citizens to express their concern over the proposed rate schedule. We expect the meeting in Manhattan on Thursday, April 30 at 5:30 pm (St. John’s University – Manhattan Auditorium, 101 Murray Street, New York, NY 10007) to be the best attended. For the most effective protest, we urge all New Yorkers to show up to this hearing. For more info regarding the hearings in the other four boroughs, click here.


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Another 14% Rate Increase… and That’s Not All!

On Friday (April 3, 2009) the Water Board held its once-yearly meeting to discuss the upcoming year’s rate schedule. Here are the highlights:

  1. The DEP asked for a 14% rate increase, which would take the cost of water and sewer combined to nearly $7 per hundred cubic feet. Remember, this comes after last year’s 14.5% percent increase and 2007’s 11.5% increase, when we were assured by the DEP that 11.5% would be sufficient for the next two years (2008 and 2009). Clearly, that didn’t happen.
  2. Frontage was not discussed at all. You may remember that the Water Board initially told us that this year would be the last year for frontage. Then they extended it for one year only. By not mentioning it this year, they’ve essentially kept the extension in place another year. A source close to the situation tells me that they plan on extending it at least another two years after that.
  3. They finally put a number on their proposal to penalize New Yorkers who do not allow access to their meters. If this plan makes it into next year’s rate schedule, building owners who don’t allow DEP inspectors to read their meters will be charged, depending on the size of the water main, anywhere from $3,198 to $1,598,930 per year. And that is not a typo.
  4. One nice thing that was mentioned at the meeting was that they are attributing a 6% reduction in consumption over the last year to the efforts of conservationists. Of course, they also use this statistic to justify the magnitude of the rate increase.


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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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Looks Like We’re in for Another Huge Rate Hike

At last week’s Water Board hearing we learned that so far, collections have been below expectations during every month of the current fiscal year. Chairman Moss blames the economy and conservation (!).

It wouldn’t surprise me if they try to make up for it by raising our water/sewer rates next year an astronomical amount.

As always, we’ll keep you posted.


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Shakeup at the Water Board

While the mayor has said that he would renegotiate the rental agreement with the Water Board, the current fiscal crisis facing the city is making that scenario seem quite unlikely. This means that the Water Board is going to continue paying the city exorbitant fees for the use of the reservoirs and subsequently, New Yorkers’ water rates are going to continue to climb astronomically.

Former Water Board Chairman Jim Tripp set a bold precedent recently when he resigned his post in protest of the mayor’s intransigence. Since then, two more members have left the Water Board, Marilyn Gelber and Maria Santos Valentin. It seems that no one wants to be the bad guy blamed for New York’s upcoming rate increases.

Meanwhile, the Water Board is holding a public hearing on Thursday, November 20, most likely to announce three new members. (The new members are appointed by Mayor Bloomberg and will no doubt support his position on the lease agreement.) Details can be found on the Water Board website.

With three of the board’s members expected to join this week, a majority of its seven members will have been sitting on the board for less than two years. (Current chairman Alan Moss was elected in early 2007.)