Water Watch NYC

Everything you need to know about water in NYC.


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What’s Wrong with the Water Board’s Payment Agreement

The cost of entering into a payment agreement with the NYC Water Board to get your property out of the water bill lien sale is giving up your right to challenge the accuracy of the charges. If you have a $50,000 outstanding balance on account that is about to go into a lien sale, which will result in hefty fees, and you do not have enough cash to pay the balance, you can enter into a payment plan with the Water Board which will take the property off the lien sale, but you must agree that all of the charges are valid and waive your right to ever dispute any of them.  So if it turns out later that the Water Board misread your meter and billed you ten times what it should have, you cannot demand the Water Board correct the bill and reduce your debt—you are on the hook to pay the overcharges, interest and all.

The terms of the payment agreement charge you the same 9% interest normally charged on open balances and you must make timely payments of all new charges as well as the scheduled payments.  If you default by missing any payment, the Water Board may put the balance back on the lien sale list, but embedded overcharges still may not be disputed.  (And the Water Board does not agree that it may not revise those charges to a higher amount should it find an error in your favor.)

The Water Board is taking advantage of the customer’s lack of any bargaining power in order to coerce customers into waiving their basic economic right to dispute overcharges and obtain equitable relief.  The balance of equities, like the agreement, is one sided.  No customer bargains for these terms.  There is no loss or hardship to the Water Board without this provision which only helps the DEP to unjustified windfalls at its customers’ expense.  On the other hand, there is no real consideration or benefit given to the customer, such as reducing the amount of the debt and/or not charging interest on the debt, in return for entering into the agreement.  The customer enters the agreement because his back is against the wall.  This is coercive and imbalanced due to the government’s far greater power and the Water Board should drop this provision from the payment agreement in the interest of justice.

The lien sale is supposed to aid the City to collect honest debts.  It is not supposed to be a sword used to coerce members of the public into giving up the right to a fair accounting of their debt.  When the City Council authorized the Water Board to sell water tax liens, it failed to safeguard the public from Water Board using the lien sale to coerce the public.


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Does Conservation Equal Higher Water Bills?

I would just like to quickly clarify something about the relationship between conservation, water rates and water bills.

Conservation necessitates higher water rates. There is no way around it: If we consume less of a product (in this case, water) then the product’s variable costs go down. But its fixed costs remain the same which equals a higher cost per unit.

But there is another thing to take into account. If we are conserving water, if we are truly using less of it, then even at a higher cost per unit, our total cost should go down.

Now let’s evaluate the opinion of Coucilman Vacca in the previous post, an opinion shared by many who spoke at last week’s City Council hearing. How can New Yorkers who are conserving water be seeing their water bills go up even as they are dying of dehydration?

The answer is that approximately one-third of the percentage points of the rate hike (4-5%) is going to fund things that are only remotely related to the cost of water, like the unfair rental agreement!

So to conclude: The DEP must stop blaming their rate hikes on conservation. Sure, conservation contributes but if you’re conserving water and your bill is too high, conservation is not to blame. Economics has proven that. The fault lies with the DEP and their enormous budget that continues to spiral out of control.


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The Blog Would Like to Recognize Council Member Vacca

City Council Member James Vacca

City Council Member James Vacca

There was a lot of outrage directed toward the DEP and the Water Board at the recent City Council hearing over numerous issues that we have discussed at length on this blog. Among the more prominent issues were the lease agreement, a lack of accountability and the new “Denial of Access” and “Theft of Services” charges.

One member who I would like to single out (in a good way) for his comments is Council Member James Vacca from the Bronx. His questions were tough, direct and well-researched. He called out Acting DEP Commissioner Lawitts regarding his claim that the DEP has been supporting the efforts of conservation for years. The essence of his question boiled down to the fact that the DEP blames much of the need for such a high rate increase on the fact that revenue has gone down 6% because of conservation. How can you claim support for conservation when your answer to those that conserve is to go ahead and charge them more for it?

Councilman Vacca put it more succinctly: A New Yorker could be saving water to the point where they’re dying of dehydration and their water bill would still go up.

Well said, Councilman. Well said.


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My Testimony to City Council

The following is the text of the testimony I presented earlier today at the City Council hearing regarding the proposed rate increase:

As a result of soaring costs, the Water Board is faced with yet another 14% rate increase. It is also stymied by its inability to gain access to water meters and the minuscule number of customers who are intentionally stealing water from the system. To solve this management problem and raise revenue the DEP is proposing new penalties termed “Denial of Access” and “Theft of Services.” These penalties, called rates, will subject innocent consumers to multimillion dollar fines. The following are a few examples:

  1. The owner of a three family home who has paid every water bill on time but has an obstructed meter or a cut meter seal, quite possibly cut a long time ago, will be liable for a four-year back bill in the amount of $19,751.52, even though there has been no theft of water and no attempt to steal water.
  2. The owner of a warehouse with two 8” mains and an annual water bill of $500.00 who has paid all charges on time and whose tenant inadvertently backed his truck into a water meter and destroyed the meter would be liable for a $3.6 million dollar charge. The property owner would have no way to defend herself. The fine would be the same amount if the tenant just obstructed the meter.
  3. The third case is an example of actual theft but the fine is clearly excessive. A 1,500 unit Mitchell-Lama subsidized housing complex whose superintendent opened a fire hydrant for neighborhood children or whose tenants used the building’s sprinkler system to wash their cars would be liable for a back bill in the amount of $9.3 million. The housing complex could reduce the charge if it could prove that this was the first time a fire hydrant or a sprinkler system was used for domestic purposes. For some perverse reason it would be the guilty party’s responsibility to prove it did not steal water at any earlier time. Of course when defending itself it could not offer any evidence beyond the DEP inspector’s report. Simply put, the Mitchell-Lama may not provide any evidence that is not created by the party prosecuting it.

I honestly believe that it is not the DEP staff’s intent to punish innocent people, but they believe that they need onerous regulations to convict the guilty few. That is not the way the law is supposed to operate in this county. Laws and regulations are supposed to protect the innocent and it is the DEP’s responsibility to prove guilt before defaming a customer’s character with charges of “Theft of Services,” and the accused should have the opportunity to defend himself. I respectfully request that the DEP rewrite these regulations to require the DEP to present conclusive evidence that one is guilty of theft before issuing a verdict of “Theft of Services.” Furthermore the taxpayer must have the ability to refute any charges.


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Continuing Coverage of Tripp’s Resignation

I recently received a phone call from a reliable source in the City Council. This source enlightened me regarding various factors that were not initially evident that have contributed to the resignation of former Water Board Chairman Jim Tripp.

I was told that the timeline of events did not occur in the order that they were reported. The public was initially told that Tripp had stepped down and that Alan Moss was selected to replace him. Actually, what happened was Mayor Bloomberg took away Tripp’s chairmanship and gave it to Moss. As a response to this Tripp stepped down.

Clearly the mayor wanted Tripp out. He couldn’t completely remove Tripp from the Water Board because members are selected for four year terms and the mayor can’t force them out in the middle of their terms. So the mayor did the only thing he could: not let Tripp be chairman. Tripp responded as I’m sure the mayor expected, by stepping down completely.

The second piece of information I received is even more scandalous. Why was Moss selected as the new chairman? Apparently, six of the seven Water Board members (this was back when Tripp was on the Water Board and there were seven members) signed a letter to City Hall urging the mayor to reconsider the current rental agreement (the amount that the DEP pays the city for use of the reservoirs, currently estimated at a whopping $122 million). Who was the one and only Water Board member that didn’t question Mayor Mike’s decision to continue forwarding this enormous cost onto NYC’s residents? You guessed it! Alan Moss.

There you have it. Tripp said in May that he considered quitting over the Mayor’s recalcitrance but, being the loyal and dedicated environmentalist that he is, he plugged on hoping to be able to make a difference despite the mayor’s stubbornness. That was until the mayor underhandedly removed him and made his opinions as well as his dedication all but useless. It would appear that with the city budget skyrocketing, Mayor Bloomberg and Mark Page, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, are making sure that the DEP pays the entire rental agreement.

I’ve said it before but now, in light of this new information, I say it again with renewed enthusiasm. Chairman Tripp served us well for 16 years. His tenacity, dedication and, most of all, his desire to stand up for what’s right will be sorely missed.


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City Council Holds Hearing on Backflow Containment

(l-r) Me with Stewart O'Brien of the Plumbing Foundation and Thomas Maniuszko of the NYS PHCC

(l-r) Hershel with Stewart O'Brien of the Plumbing Foundation and Thomas Maniuszko of the NYS PHCC

Councilman James Gennaro called a public hearing of the City Council yesterday to discuss the DEP’s failure to live up to New York State’s imposed requirements for backflow containment devices.

In 1981, the state required the DEP to determine which buildings needed the devices and to institute a program to have commercial building owners install these safety devices. In 1999, the DEP reported that there may be more than 100,000 buildings that require backflow prevention.

DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd testified at the hearing that there are about 13,000 buildings that still need to be inspected before the DEP even begins dealing with the issue of enforcing backflow installation.

I testified along with the Plumbing Foundation and the New York State Association of Plumbing, Heating & Cooling Contractors about the importance of this issue and the DEP’s lack of action. We at WaterWatchNYC commend Councilman Gennaro for his commitment to this issue. We are proud to be involved in the effort and we wish Councilman Gennaro a lot of luck in his future efforts to ensure the safety of the public.


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Have We Avoided the Rate Hike?

The New York Times is reporting that Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn have reached an agreement that could halt the proposed 18% water rate increase.

The exact details of the agreement are not totally clear, but what is clear is that the agreement will put a bill before City Council that would allow the DEP to sell stand-alone water bill liens on properties that don’t pay their water bills. What isn’t clear is whether or not City Council would demand anything in return from the DEP.

More details on what is known about the agreement can be found at this New York Times article and at this article from NY1.

The DEP has been requesting the right to sell stand-alone liens for some time now and City Council has been denying them that right due to their inefficient operation and lack of oversight in the past. Hopefully, this bill requires the DEP to enact some sort of process that satisfies City Council’s requests.

The Water Board will continue to go through with their plans to raise rates, at least until the new bill before City Council passes.

The problem we face now comes with the realization that the proposed rate increase may not have even been necessary in the first place. At City Council hearings and Water Board meetings, when anyone from the DEP or Water Board was asked to justify the proposal for a rate increase of 18%, the response was always something along the line of, “Well, we’re not sure…. Maybe we need 11%, maybe 28%…. It’s not totally clear at this point, so we’re settling on 18%.”

We have always been under the impression that city agencies are meant to operate as efficiently as possible. They calculate how much money they need and then work out a way to obtain that particular amount. In this case it is becoming more and more clear that the DEP never calculated the 18% rate increase to make up for lost revenue. They may never have needed a rate increase at all. Eighteen percent was just a number that they pulled out of the air that they thought would be enough to pressure City Council into granting them stand-alone water bill liens sales.

This calls into question all rate increases requested by city agencies. For example, does the MTA really need to raise the subway rate, or is talk of a rate increase just a threat so that the MTA can get what it wants from us, the taxpayers?