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 For the first time since 1995, the water rate increase was revoked by court.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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Victory for Taxpayers of New York

Just short of a week ago, Supreme Justice Carol Edmead voided the Water Board and City Hall’s authority to impose a water rate hike for this year as well as terminated the program to reimburse small homeowners on their water bill credit.

Citing unfair and preferential distribution of funds, the city of New York and the Water Board were stopped in their tracks by the people of New York.

Thanks should be given to Joseph Strasburg of the Rent Stabilization Association who fought against City Hall and the Water Board for this win for the people of New York.

Further applause should be given to Justice Edmead who is protecting the taxpayers of New York and our fragile water system from the greedy hands of politicians.


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Big Surprises at the Rate Approval Hearing

The Water Board held its annual meeting this morning (May 15, 2009) to approve the changes to the Water/Sewer Rate Schedule for Fiscal Year 2010. As you know, WaterWatchNYC protested three major elements of the new rate structure pertaining to the DEP’s proposed “Denial of Access” and “Theft of Services” regulations. Thanks to you, the concerned, active New Yorkers who read this blog, there were many surprising changes to rate schedule announced this morning.

Firstly, as we requested, the Denial of Access notices now have to be sent out via certified mail as opposed to regular mail.

Also, there will be an appeals process put in place for New Yorkers to defend themselves from the DEP’s Theft of Services claim. We have not been informed of the details of this process but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Finally, there will be a 120-day grace period for those found to be stealing water, during which time these people will only pay half of the previously announced maximum water/sewer rate. This 120-day grace period is from the beginning of July to the end of October, not the first 120 days after each customer is found to be stealing water.

We want to commend everyone that spoke out against the unfair regulations and helped create these new caveats, especially Councilman Jim Gennaro and the other council members who joined his charge, the property owners and managers that spoke out at the City Council hearing and Water Board hearings and anyone else who voiced their concern and made a difference.

One final thing about this morning’s meeting to take note of is that the proposed 14% rate hike is actually only going to be a 12.9% rate hike. That means that starting in July, out water/sewer rate is $6.76 per hcf and not $6.82 per hcf. Sure, it may have been a tactic to publicly announce 14% when they only needed 12.9% just so they could gain public favor when they announced the lower rate. But either way, what matters is that the rate isn’t as high as initially expected and Commissioner Lawitts and Chairman Moss deserve recognition for that.

Could this be the beginning of a kinder, gentler DEP/Water Board? I guesss we’ll just have to wait and see.


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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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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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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.