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Support rekindled for Maltese’s dead water bill

The Maltese bill, which would extend the complaint period to six...

By Jennifer Warren

A Brooklyn legislator is trying to revive a bill originally sponsored by state Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale) to extend the period in which a customer can complain about his water bill.

The Maltese bill, which would extend the complaint period to six years from the current two years, died an early death two years ago, but Assemblyman Peter Abbate Jr. (D-Brooklyn) recently reintroduced the measure.

“I really think it’s an outrage when every other utility has six years,” said Abbate. “There are instances in the city of New York where there are mistakes and the truth of the matter is people don’t find them that quick.”

The Senate first saw Maltese’s bill in June 1999 and voted 56-0 in favor of it. Two weeks later the Assembly voted 145-1 in favor of the measures.

Despite the overwhelming legislative support, five months later Gov. George Pataki vetoed the bill.

Michael Lockhart, chairman of the Coalition for Water Bill Justice and the president of American Telephone and Utility Consultants, a private auditing firm, said the veto resulted from heavy lobbying by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

But this year’s attempt to reverse the bill should pass, Lockhart said.

“The political climate is much better because Giuliani is weaker,” he said. Although the gubernatorial election is more than a year and a half away, the campaigns are heating up upstate and “this is the kind of bill [Pataki] would be proud of supporting rather than vetoing,” Lockhart said.

The topic of water is a particularly sensitive one in southeast Queens, where for years residents were the only city dwellers whose water supply was not regulated by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. Residents received their water from Jamaica Water Supply Co., a private company, and found themselves paying higher fees for poorer quality, Councilman Archie Spigner (D-St. Albans) argued at the time.

These days, all residents of the city purchase their water from the New York City Water Board, a city agency that charges customers on a quarterly basis for metered readings of water usage.

The board charges customers $1.31 for an average of 148 gallons of water, said Water Board spokesman Geoffrey Ryan.

A single-family house in New York City generates an average bill of $454 per year, Ryan said. Houses generally are billed more than apartment units because they have lawns or washing machines, which consume large amounts of water.

At first, the Water Board provided a window of six years for customers to file complaints of inaccurate bills, which often resulted from estimations rather than actual meter readings. But that complaint period was shortened to two years by the board in the mid-’90s when many city residents were receiving faulty bills.

In his 1995 study, “Expensive Water: Wrong Water Meter Bills Flood City Residences,” Public Advocate Mark Green concluded that New York City’s water billing system was “in serious disarray” and that meter readings were sporadic and often incorrect.

Green cited many residential and business consumers complaining of overcharges ranging from $250 to as much as $136,000. He also related that many customers’ bills were arriving months and even years behind schedule.

Reducing the complaint time could prevent a customer from ever collecting on overpaid bills Green wrote in a 1999 letter to Giuliani.

Lockhart said the Water Board is “overwhelmed with the number of complaints. This is their way of reducing the number of billing complaints. Rather than reducing the number of problems, they’ve chosen instead to reduce the consumers’ rights to complain. That’s why they did it.”

But representatives of the Water Board contend that Lockhart’s statements are misleading and self-serving. In a letter written to Lockhart last July, Joseph Lhota, deputy mayor of operations, said “your allegation that the ‘rule change was proposed by DEP to wipe out massive number of over-billing complaints from consumers’ is totally without merit or logic.”

Lhota also said statistics used by Lockhart to argue his points were “simply fictional,” and that Lockhart, who described himself to the mayor as the head of a grassroots organization, failed to disclose he was the president of a private auditing firm that profits from successfully contested utility bills.

Lockhart said he believes the Water Board made its changes because “of people like me. The irony is it’s done wonders for my business. Now there’s a greater need to have a professional.”

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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