When one relocates from Queens to the suburbs, very quickly there is a realization that government functions are conducted differently across the county line. There are multiple units of government that each levies taxes, holds elections, and has overlapping boundaries. Certain public services are provided not by governments, but private companies, as in the case of West Hempstead’s water supply.
One section of this community is supplied by the West Hempstead-Hempstead Gardens Water District, and another by a private company, American Water. The disparity in the bill led to an investigation by Governor Andrew Cuomo to see whether a public takeover would result in lower bills for American Water customers.
Former Queens residents in West Hempstead may notice a familiar name tasked with this matter: former Councilman Rory Lancman, in his role as Special Counsel for Ratepayer Protection.
“Governor Cuomo’s charge was simple: Will public water – in whole or in part – lower rates without compromising safety or service for New York American Water’s customers? Our findings are that it will, under a variety of scenarios, coupled with the meaningful property tax reform the Governor is also proposing,” Lancman said in a statement. “A new Nassau County Water Authority will give decision makers the vehicle to make an informed judgment on how best to act on the study’s findings.”
Lancman’s agency, the state Department of Public Service, conducted a feasibility study on the public takeover of the company, which serves 124,000 customers in Nassau County. The report determined that public ownership of American Water would be “feasible and cost-effective.”
“The cost of water on our side of the town is significantly higher than the other side,” said Daniel Rosenbaum, whose house stands next to an American Water pumping station. “All I know is that people there talk about how cheap their water is and I’m paying at least $60 a month, and in the summer it’s double.”
In his capacity as a civic activist, Owen Rumelt served on an ad hoc committee a few years ago that sought to investigate the price disparity between West Hempstead’s two water providers. “When I moved into my current home, my water bill quadrupled. I received a tour of the water purification plant but nobody told us why it costs so much.”
A public takeover bill sponsored by Sen. Todd Kaminsky passed in the State Senate but is stalled in the Assembly. At the same time, the Canada-based Liberty Utilities is seeking to buy the investor-led New York American Water for $607 million, pending approval by the state Public Service Commission. The company also serves customers in parts of Putnam, Sullivan, Ulster, Washington, and Westchester Counties. But in total, only four percent of properties in the state receive their water from private companies. The company opposes public takeover, arguing that its bills could be reduced if it were granted an exemption from a franchise property tax.
Should the proposal succeed, a Nassau County Water Authority would consolidate some of the county’s smaller water districts under a single entity, and eventually merge into an island-wide water system. “It’s about the quality of the water,” Rumelt said. “And hopefully the prices will also go down.”
By Sergey Kadinsky