2007-05-16 / Features

Steep Water Rate Hike Brings Threat Of Lawsuit

BY JOHN TOSCANO

City Councilmember David Weprin City Councilmember David Weprin Astounded by the biggest water rate increase in 15 years, public officials threatened to go to court to overturn the new levy.

The threat came after the city Water Board voted unanimously to increase water rates by 11.5 percent, beginning July 1. The new rate will drive up the annual cost for the average single-family metered household by $72, from $627 to $699.

City Councilmember David Weprin, chairman of the council's Finance Committee, called the board's action an outrage and said he was considering a lawsuit to overturn it.

"They totally ignored any testimony from the public. This Water Board has no accountability to the public. This is exactly the kind of tax that hurts the middle class, that hurts small business and that really encourages the middle class to move out of the city."

And, Weprin (D- Hollis) added:"This is on top of a 9.5 percent rate hike last year and comes at a time when the mayor and council are trying to reduce tax rates."

Councilmember James Gennaro (D- Fresh Meadows), who had joined Weprin in offering a plan to keep the rate increase lower, charged that $75 million of the rate increase goes directly into the city's General Fund and has nothing to do with water service delivery." Gennaro described the Water Board's members as "stooges in a tainted process that, like Enron, must come to an end".

In a letter to the Water Board, received after they had announced the rate increase, city comptroller William Thompson Jr. offered a plan to avoid future increases.

Thompson said the board should change its agreement on leases of city property. The change could eventually make about $100 million a year available to the board and could be used to avert rate increases.

According to Thompson, these funds represent excess rent payments to the city which presently go into the city's General Fund. Gennaro has offered a proposal similar to Thompson's.

Compounding the hardship imposed on homeowners and small businesses, the water rate is forecast to take another upward leap in the next two years.

Steven Lawitts, executive director of the Water Board, said the reason for the huge increase is a $105 million increase in operating expenses and a $23 billion investment in the system over the next 10 years. Lawitts also said that 70 percent of the increase would go to cover energy and chemicals, costs over which the board has no control.

Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. (D- Astoria) commented, "Almost half of this increase is not going to improving water services or safety, but rather is going into the general budget at a time when we have a surplus. This is a tax increase that can and must be stopped."

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