Boro reps push alternative to 14.5% water-rate hike

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The city Water Board was to vote late this week on its proposal to raise water rates by 14.5 percent, but in the days leading up to the decision, several Queens lawmakers launched their own plan to reduce the rate hike.

DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd said May 6 that a rise in operation costs at her agency make the rate hike necessary.

"Last year at this time, Water Board rate projections indicated the likely need for a double-digit rate increase of 11.5 percent in [fiscal year] 2009. A few key factors, however, have contributed to the need for an '09 increase of 14.5 percent, or three points higher than predicted," she said.

However, Lloyd said, DEP has seen a more than $118 million increase in non-discretionary operations and maintenance costs, such as rising fuel and energy costs, higher collective bargaining and health care costs and larger debt service payments on federally mandated projects that make up two-thirds of the agency's budget.

City Councilmen James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), David Weprin (D-Hollis), John Liu (D-Flushing) and Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) have long criticized the arrangement where a growing percentage of the money collected by water rate hikes goes to fund city projects other than water- and sewer-related improvements.

Water rate hikes used to pay off debt incurred by sewer infrastructure work completed prior to 1983, but by now the majority of the revenue no longer pays down the debt and instead goes into the city's general fund, a practice Gennaro says is to continue in the future. This proposed rate hike would divert $122 million collected from water and sewer bills into the general fund to pay for government operations, he said.

A daytime public hearing about the rate hike May 6 at city Department of Environmental Protection headquarters in LeFrak City drew no members of the public, Gennaro noted.

"How many times is the public going to dip into the pockets of New Yorkers?" he said. "It's time for the water board to find other ways to fund itself. You cannot continue to do this."

A recent fiscal brief by the city Independent Budget Office showed water bill revenues being diverted to the general fund and revealed that $55 million is being diverted to various city agencies as reimbursements for supporting the water system, Gennaro said.

This includes $30 million to the city Sanitation Department for street sweeping, $7.4 million to the FDNY for hydrant inspection, smaller sums to the city Information Technology and Telecommunications Department for running the 311 Call Center and the Department of Transportation for cleaning arterial highways, he said.

"With so much money going toward a purpose that is not benefiting the water system, I find it hypocritical that the Water Board has the gall to ask its taxpayers to pay more," said Weprin, chairman of the City Council Finance Committee.

Eliminating the payment to the city's general fund would reduce this year's proposed hike by nine points and eliminating the $55 million in agency reimbursements would reduce the hike by another 2.75 points, for a total hike of only 2.75 percent, Gennaro said.

Updated 6:58 pm, October 10, 2011
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