Water Watch NYC

Everything you need to know about water in NYC.


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Mayor de Blasio Assigns DEP Acting Commissioner

imageMayor de Blasio appointed Vincent Sapienza as acting Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner earlier this month to replace the departing Emily Lloyd. Sapienza has been dragged to the front row as a figurehead representing the DEP after maintaining a non-political post in charge of the DEP’s infrastructure.

The boots Sapienza will be stepping into will no doubt be muddy. Emily Lloyd left behind a number of major challenges that need to be addressed immediately.

The first challenge is the absence of the water rate increase. For the first time since 1995, the water rate increase was revoked by court.   How will the Water Board balance its budget if New York City citizens won’t be charged more for water? This is great news for the people but what will happen to the dynamics of political funds?

Another challenge Sapienza will duel with are concerns the Multi-family Conservation Program (MCP) applications. MCP allows flat-rate billing of water bills for buildings with four or more apartments. The MCP program can help save water but thousands of MCP applications are backed up and the MCP guidelines are being ignored. Is the DEP withholding from processing these applications because they know they will lose money?

These problems presented require a permanent commissioner, not from an acting commissioner.  I strongly urge Mayor de Blasio to appoint Vincent Sapienza to be the permanent DEP commissioner so these issues can be dealt with. This is a time of crisis for the DEP, the DEP’s reputation and trust from the people are at stake and we need someone with a firm grip on the steering wheel, not an acting commissioner.

 


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Goodbye DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd

After over forty years of public service to the City of New York, DEP’s Commissioner Emily Lloyd has taken a definitive leave of retirement due to her medical condition.

We at Ashokan greatly thank Emily for her services to the public and for her contributions to the people of New York City. Emily has worked as the DEP’s Commissioner for two terms; the first during Mayor Bloomberg’s reign and now under de Blasio’s governing hands. Her efforts have and ensured that all NYC residents have access to the cleanest water in the eastern seaboard.

Ex-Commissioner Lloyd has an outstanding history of serving the public. She has held positions such as the Commissioner of Sanitation and as President of the Prospect Park Alliance. Ms. Lloyd’s efforts has done so much for the people of New York throughout her career in order to ensure the protection and maintenance of the city’s recreational areas.

We all wish her a warm goodbye and the best with her recovery in the future.


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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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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.


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What You Should Do Now

Yesterday Water Watch NYC blogged about the city council meeting regarding the recent water rate hikes (read it here).

The purpose of the post was not just to inform about what transpired at yesterday’s meeting but also to let you know what your best approach is in response.

So what should you, as an upstanding, bill-paying, New Yorker do? Well, Water Watch NYC recognizes that you’re in a difficult situation. Your rates are going up because of other people that aren’t paying their bills. There seems to be no way around it. Granting certain rights to the DEP is either impractical or unfair. The fact is that the DEP does not deserve the rights to lien sales in their current state. On the other hand, the fact is that granting the DEP the right to sell liens seems to be the most efficient way of raising their collections rates and lowering your water bills.

Therefore, Water Watch NYC suggests that you call your local assembly representative and ask them to allow the DEP to sell liens, but you should also be asking your representative to apply as much pressure as they can on the DEP to implement some sort of oversight and to further clean up their act.


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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).