Water Watch NYC

Everything you need to know about water in NYC.


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DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd Resigns

I just returned from a Water Board meeting where I received independent corroboration of a tip that I received on Wednesday: Emily Lloyd, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, has indeed resigned.

Lloyd became DEP Commissioner back in 2005. Prior to that she had been Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation, director of business development at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and commissioner of traffic and parking for the city of Boston.

In the private sector, she had been executive vice president for government and community affairs and for administration at Columbia University. She leaves the DEP to go back into the private sector; she’s been hired by Trinity Real Estate either as a CEO (the New York Daily News reports) or as a COO (the New York Observer Reports).

(UPDATE 1/29/09: Recently approved Water Board minutes confirm that Lloyd has taken the position of Chief Operating Officer, as the New York Observer has reported.)

There is no indication that she was forced out of her position.

As all this is going on, the DEP’s Deputy Commissioner, Steve Lawitts, is biking through Amsterdam.


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The Uncertain Future of Frontage

Back in June, the DEP announced that fiscal year 2009 would be the last year of frontage billing. Since that time, neither the DEP nor the Water Board has done anything to inform the public about how this will play out. This left us in the water industry puzzled. Was there going to be a new program to replace frontage? Was every building on frontage going to be automatically switched to metered billing? Maybe the buildings on frontage were going to automatically be switched to the Multi Family Conservation Program. The answer to every frontage-related question in the industry became “Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

For months, I and others in my position alienated clients by telling them we just didn’t have any answers to their questions, while the decision makers trolled along doing nothing. Now, at this morning’s Water Board meeting, the DEP announced that they will be extending frontage for one more year.

Besides the indifference that this shows for the people of New York and besides the blatant disregard for the DEP’s announcement in June (reminds me of when they said a rate increase of 11.5% for three years would suffice and then went and raised rates by 14.5% a year later), how can the DEP and the Water Board go forward with this plan without going through the normal process already in place for changing water rates? Reinstating frontage without having the usual formal announcements and Water Board meeting in each borough is just another example of the DEP using the Water Board to circumvent rules that were put in place in order to protect New Yorkers.


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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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Rate Hike AND Service Termination

The NYC Water Board met this morning to approve the midyear rate hike OR service termination. In the end they chose to do both.

Here are some of the new measures the DEP now has regarding service termination:

  • The DEP is now only required to issue a notice of termination 15 days in advance.
  • The DEP is now allowed to terminate service for smaller amounts owed for shorter periods of time.
  • The Water Board reduced the amount of time that the DEP is prohibited from shutting off water due to the cold weather.
  • The time frame to issue complaints has been reduced.

Water Watch NYC’s opinion on this matter is that the Water Board is putting itself in a very precarious situation. With these new rules, it becomes too easy for an overzealous clerk to mistakenly order service termination on a squeaky clean account. What happens if a homeowner who always paid his $500-$600 dollar bills on time, all of a sudden gets a bill for $5,000-$6,000? He refuses to pay it because it’s obviously a mistake and three months later the DEP terminates his water service.


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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).