Reporting and Opinion by Gregory Lobo Jost
Two members of Mayor Bloomberg's Water Board sat mostly silent in the auditorium of the Bronx Library Center on Kingsbridge Road yesterday afternoon. Their executive director (and acting DEP Commissioner) had left before even the first testimony was heard to attend to something that must have been very important upstate. (One wonders if they planned the hearing in the Bronx for that time so Mr. Lawitts could be a bit closer to his meeting 100 miles north of the City). The impending 14% water rate increase kept those in attendance agitated and the two board members mostly silent, save the new board chair Alan Moss's (in photo at center) recollections of growing up on Pelham Parkway to open up the hearing. Most of the talking by anyone on stage was done by the hearing officer (in photo at left).
Meanwhile, the same two City Council members from the Bronx once again attended the hearing. Councilman Koppell focused his testimony on how DEP could shrink the size of the hike by assuming a better collection rate, given the powers bestowed upon the agency by the City Council to sell water liens on multifamily properties and turn off service for delinquent single family homeowners. Councilmembers, of course, feel duped into giving DEP such powers since it is hasn't resulted in lower rate hikes like they were told. And since we are in a deep recession with the City's jobless rate spiking and foreclosures continuing to stay at or near all-time highs, collections will likely not improve; with each new double-digit water rate hike and the worsening of the City's economy comes the realization that many are unable to pay any of their bills, or must at least make the difficult decision between paying the mortgage, property taxes, heating oil, Con Edison, or water bill -- which would you choose? (UNHP's analysis last year showed 15-20% of homeowners at least one year delinquent on their water bills were already in foreclosure.)
Councilman Vacca made his points about how ironically conservation of water leads to higher water rates, and how the rates are really a hidden regressive tax that subsidize the City coffers. He focused on how DEP's budget continues to grow, while every other City agency must make drastic cuts. He implied that the Mayor may even encourage DEP spending increases because the more the agency pays in debt service on capital projects, the more money goes into the City's budget in the form of a rental payment.
Testimony was also heard from environmental groups who (rightfully) continue to harp on the poor decision making regarding the filtration plant, and from a private affordable housing owner and manager who warned of the toll these repeated increases will have on low income renters in the form of reduced services.
Three members of University Neighborhood Housing Program (including myself) testified as well. Included in my testimony was the suggestion for the Water Board to get a proportional cut of alternate side parking ticket revenue since, according to the Independent Budget Office, water rates subsidized street cleaning to the tune of $30 million last year. While somewhat in jest, I used this point to illustrate how the Mayor avoids raising taxes by bilking water rate payers to pay for City services.
UNHP's outreach coordinator, Jumelia Abrahamson, pointed out to the two present members of the Water Board that "the only thing that has gone up faster than the water rate over the past few years is the foreclosure rate." When this rate increase goes into effect, water rates will have gone up 60% in just four years, and will have more than doubled since 2001. To make matters worse, Councilmember Vacca pointed out that DEP is projecting double digit rate hikes for the next few years as well.
While legitimate suggestions were made on how to shrink the size of this year's increase, it is unlikely the Water Board will take any immediate action. Members who took the Mayor to task on the increase last year are no longer on the board.
Meanwhile, the results of the rate study commissioned last year are yet to arrive, meaning the Water Board does not have any recommendations about improving the structuring of the rate system that it will likely take seriously. If that's really the case, then the most useful suggestion of the afternoon may have come from Community Board 7 District Manager Fernando Tirado, who in the last testimony of the afternoon urged those in the audience to remember this rate increase when it comes time to vote in the fall.
The Daily News also covered the hearing.