Water Watch NYC

Everything you need to know about water in NYC.


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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?


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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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New Stormwater Control Techniques Planned

James GennaroOn November 8, City Council Member James Gennaro will be joined by representatives of the Storm Waters Infrastructure Matters (SWIM) environmental coalition to announce the introduction of three stormwater management bills aimed at reducing the amount of raw sewage that flows into New York Harbor.

“The development and implementation of a Sustainable Stormwater Management Plan is essential to reducing stormwater runoff into the City’s sewers, which directly results in massive amounts of pollutants and pathogens being dumped into our waterways due to combined sewer overflows,” Councilman Gennaro said. “Introducing ‘green’ stormwater control techniques, such as maximizing the use of parks and other green spaces to capture and store water, building green roofs, and protecting wetlands, will not only take the strain off our over-taxed sewer system, it can also reduce flooding, which is a big deal in Queens, where flooding has repeatedly destroyed people’s homes and businesses. This progressive legislation will improve the City’s water quality, allowing for expanded recreational uses of our water; add new green spaces; mitigate flooding; and add capacity to a sewer system that, frankly, is in dire need of help.”

Water Watch NYC thanks SWIM for their press release about the press conference and hearing. More info can be found at the SWIM website here.

Water Watch NYC also wishes to commend Council Member Gennaro for his efforts to build a better economic and environmental stormwater management system for NYC’s home and business owners.

All are encouraged to attend tomorrow’s hearing, which begins at 1:00 pm, and to the press conference on the steps of City Hall which will take place prior to the meeting.


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What Lew Fidler Said

Here’s something to think about.

At last week’s city council hearing (blogged about here), Brooklyn’s Lewis Fidler (Democrat, 46th district) proposed that the recent spike in water bill delinquencies could very well be related to the sub-prime lending crisis.

According to Fidler, the parts of NYC known to have high delinquency rates are also the parts of NYC hit hardest by the sub-prime lending crisis. Fidler’s point was something to the effect of “If a homeowner has the resources to pay only the mortgage or the water bill, I think we all know what the homeowner is going to choose to pay.”

What follows from Fidler’s observation is that the DEP’s insistence to keep raising rates will quickly exacerbate the effects of the sub-prime lending crisis, causing more and more foreclosures in NYC.


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Stand-Alone Liens vs. Tax Liens

DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd has said that her department’s ability to sell stand-alone liens against the property of delinquent customers has been its “single most effective enforcement tool” (quoted in a New York Times article dated October 7, 2007 by Anthony DePalma). About a year and a half ago the DEP lost its ability to sell stand-alone liens and it was replaced by the right to sell tax liens.

So what’s the difference between these two types of liens, tax and stand-alone?

In the interest of being as explanatory as possible, let’s first define the word lien as it appears by itself. Wikipedia defines a lien as “a form of security interest granted over an item of property to secure the payment of a debt or performance of some other obligation.”

In our case this means that if the DEP secures a lien on a property of which the water bill has gone unpaid, the DEP has the right to sell that property and use that collected money as payment for the water bill.

In essence, the scenario described above is a stand-alone water lien, where the DEP has the ability to sell a lien against a property for the sole purpose of collecting on a water bill.

A tax lien is when an entity has the right to sell a property for the purpose of collecting unpaid taxes.

How does this relate to the DEP, as the DEP bills for water usage and not taxes?

Currently, with its ability to sell tax liens and not stand-alone liens, the DEP can only sell a lien against a property if that property is also delinquent on taxes. The DEP claims that this makes their current lien selling ability an ineffective tool for collecting unpaid bills, as only about 15% of their unpaid bills come from properties that are also delinquent taxpayers. This leaves the DEP in a situation where they have no lien sale rights on about 85% of their unpaid bills.