City okays water rate increase for Queens

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First an 18.5 percent hike in property taxes. Then the 17 percent jump in bus and subway fares. Now Queens residents are facing a 6.5 percent rise in water use fees, the second such increase in as many years, and many of the borough’s public officials and community leaders have taken stands against it.

The increase will raise the rates to $3.96 per 100 cubic feet, costing the average single-family homeowner $530 a year, a spokeswoman for DEP said.

The rate hike will affect all of New York City, but Queens with its high proportion of homeowners will likely feel the impact more directly.

Rich Hellenbrecht, chairman of Community Board 13, said “6.5 percent is just outrageous. And there’s absolutely no reason for it.”

He joined Corey Bearak, executive vice president of the Queens Civic Congress, at a sparsely attended hearing held by the city water board April 23 at DEP’s offices in LeFrak City.

The water board is a state-created public corporation consisting of seven members appointed by the mayor for two-year terms. The current members include three corporate attorneys, a hospital director, an oil company president, a college administrator and the director of a non-profit environmental advocacy group.

Bearak, whose organization represents more than 100 civic and community organizations throughout the borough, said the water board was raising rates to finance major construction and rehabilitation projects for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection — a purpose for which water use fees were not originally intended.

“It’s a way to raise revenue for the city with very little scrutiny, because it is outside the realm of ordinary oversight,” said Bearak. “We feel that as a matter of policy the construction piece of the water and sewer budget — filtration plants, treatment, pipes — should be out of the tax levy and not water rates.”

But Natalie Millner, a spokeswoman for DEP, said water use fees were needed for a variety of critical maintenance and construction projects.

“We use it for many things: to implement higher security methods in the watershed ... to meet federal mandates on water quality ... for repairing and restoring water mains and necessary infrastructure improvements — all sorts of important work that we do to maintain the excellent water supply system for New Yorkers which is an ever-growing and developing need,” she said.

She added that according to a DEP study, New Yorkers pay significantly less than residents of 24 large American cities.

While Bearak and Hellenbrecht agreed that not much could be done to stop the rate hike, set to take effect in July, both are hoping for reform from legislative initiatives in the City Council and state legislature.

City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), who chairs the Environmental Protection Committee, has introduced a resolution calling upon the water board to wait until the city adopts a final budget before deciding whether and by how much to raise water rates.

The purpose is to make sure the board does not hike rates to fund capital projects that end up being cut from the budget during subsequent budget negotiations, the councilman said.

“Let’s figure out what the capital budget will be for the next 10 years, then let’s talk about water rates,” Gennaro said.

But Charles Sturcken, a spokesman for DEP, said only a small portion of the rate hike — or any rate hike — was to pay for proposed future projects.

He added that 70 percent of DEP’s budget was driven by federal and state mandates over which the city had no control.

Gennaro and his supporters settled for a resolution — which does not carry the force of law — because any effort by the City Council to regulate the state-created water board would likely face insurmountable legal hurdles, he said.

A concurrent effort underway in the state Legislature, spearheaded by Assemblyman Mark Weprin (D-Bayside), would not face any of those legal issues but might have trouble garnering sufficient support.

“It’s a common-sense proposal,” Weprin said. “Once you know how much money is available, then you know how much to raise water rates.”

He said in the past, the water board used “artificially high” water use fees to raise money for DEP’s proposed budgets.

“The City Council should be the ones to decide how much money is going to be allotted,” he said.

Weprin said his bill had passed the Assembly last year and would likely pass again this year, but was still lacking a sponsor in the Senate.

In the meantime, however, borough residents will have to tighten their budgets just a bit more.

“On top of everything else, the increase in taxes, transportation, gasoline prices, there are many, many people who are going to be seriously impacted by this,” said Hellenbrecht. “And it’s something you can’t cut out of your budget.”

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:04 pm, October 10, 2011
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