“When an agency is proud that we only have to raise the rate 7 percent, then we know we have a problem,” Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder said at a Water Board hearing on Thursday, April 26, in the Christ the King High School auditorium in Middle Village.
“And every year we do this, every year the community stands up and says how it's going to hurt us, and then every single year we raise the rate exactly what was proposed,” he said, adding that it's unfair that residents from as far as the Rockaways had to travel to Christ the King for a hearing.
According to DEP Commissioner Carter Strickland, the driving force behind rate increases are the city's debt service, which increased by 176 percent since 2002 due to $15 billion in unfunded federal mandates.
The rate proposal, however, includes a pilot program to cap the rental payment at the FY2011annual rate of $196 million, adjusted yearly for inflation, for the next three fiscal years. The program is expected to save roughly $98 million through FY15, according to DEP.
In the last three years, DEP implemented three rounds of budget-tightening measures that cut more than 15 percent of its operating costs, helping to keep rates down.
In addition, the implementation of Automatic Meter Readers will give residents more accurate readings and should amount to fairer bills, Strickland said at the hearing.
Goldfeder said he introduced legislation earlier that day to cap water rates at 4 percent.
He said he is grateful that DEP takes good care of sewers and streets in Queens, but complained that rates went up 78 percent since 2005.
“We pay our taxes, and when we pay our taxes we expect certain services,” Goldfeder said. “We expect our streets to be plowed and we don't always get that. We expect our garbage to be picked up, we expect certain things. we expect that when we turn on our faucet, we're going to have clean, reliable water and not have to pay an arm and a leg for it.”
Representatives who spoke at the hearing said rate increases are particularly tough on those with fixed incomes.
“New Yorkers are facing very tough times and are paying more for less across the board,” Assemblyman David Weprin said. “This situation could not come at a worse time as many New Yorkers have been deeply affected by the recent economic downturn and are struggling to pay their water bills at the current rate.”
He also introduced several relevant pieces of legislation recently, including one to restructure the Water Board, so seven of its members would be appointed by the mayor, one by the City Council, one by the comptroller and one by the public advocate.
Weprin said it is a conflict of interest for the Office of Management and Budget to appoint the Water Board members.
In addition, a recent rental agreement between the city and the Water Board was meant to help the board pay off debts, so there are less outstanding bonds, meaning rates should be capped, he said.
“The public is really paying an additional property tax, I feel it's unconscionable,” Weprin said, and “despite the fact that most of this testimony will be against the rate increase, I have no doubt that there will be a rate increase.”
But Strickland said unfunded mandates make it difficult to cap the tax.
Debt service is expected to increase by an additional 8 percent, or $107 million, in 2012, according to DEP.
“It only makes sense if we cap costs, which are not in our control,” Strickland said, adding that despite the increases, New York City water rates are still lower than the national average.
The Water Board needs help on the federal level, but Congressional members don't come to the hearings, he said.
“We take your comments to heart and will try to keep it flat,” Strickland said, but “without any help controlling costs, limiting revenue, it's not going to make for a solid system."