Critics Say Water Rate Hike Will Hurt Tenants

by Gary Pang

Community advocates criticized city plans to increase water rates by 5.5 percent at a public hearing on April 23 at Lehman College. Though only 14 people attended, all testified against the rate change, saying that it would affect tenants and low-income families. Speakers also registered their opposition to other proposals by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), such as the Croton water filtration plant and increased security measures for the Jerome Park Reservoir, which they said would lead to higher water rates in the future.

The New York City Water Board, which sets the rates for city and upstate water users, is holding hearings in every borough to solicit opinions on the rate change proposed by the DEP. The Board was represented by it treasurer, William Kusterbeck, and the hearing officer was Karen Zemble, an assistant counsel at the DEP.

“The biggest burden of water rate hikes is on the poor,” said Carolyn Zolas, chairperson of Clean Water for the Bronx. “Lower income families tend to have more children and use more water. Yet they can least afford high water rates.”

Affordable housing would be affected by the rate increase, said Jim Buckley, executive director of University Neighborhood Housing Program, a local nonprofit. According to Buckley, landlords will raise rents to pay for increasing water costs. “The increases on the cost of water have been high over 15 years,” Buckley told Norwood News. “There is unwillingness on the Water Board’s part to acknowledge the effects of a new hike.

“Real estate interests will be making a case to the Rent Guidelines Board that higher water and maintenance costs, especially due to the lead poisoning prevention legislation, is cause for rent increases in the annual lease renewal.”

At the hearing, William Schur, president of the Bronx Manhattan North Association of Realtors, agreed with Buckley. “The rate increase is beyond what we operators can afford,” he said.

According to the DEP, the city needs more money to pay for increasing security to protect water supply structures and facilities, especially after Sept. 11; property taxes on land bought by the DEP to protect the watershed from pollution; investments required by federal and state mandates; and increases in other operating costs.

At the hearing, some said that the rate increase would not even pay for expensive projects such as the water filtration plant and anti-terrorism security plans for the Jerome Park Reservoir. They worried that these projects would raise water rates in the near future.

Citing figures from the DEP’s environmental study on the filtration plant, Anne Marie Garti of the Jerome Park Conservancy said that future rates would increase by 3.8 percent if the plant were built in the Bronx and 3.1 percent if it were built in Westchester.

Some residents feared that the DEP might implement “eyesore” anti-terrorism measures at the Jerome Park Reservoir. Currently, there are concrete jersey barriers put in the way to the gatehouse. The proposed measures would “disrupt the community,” said Fay Muir, a Norwood resident. “Can you imagine sensors, alarms, and floodlights? All they are keeping out would be the people who live here and want to enjoy it.” According to Garti, the DEP’s proposed plan includes a 10-foot-high chain-link fence that will be painted black and will be touch sensitive; security lights around the perimeter of the reservoir; surveillance cameras; and blocking devices at strategic locations around the reservoir.

However, DEP Commissioner Christopher Ward was reported by The Riverdale Press as having “promised a series of measures aimed at minimizing disruption” during a recent meeting with Bronx High School of Science students. The Press also reported that Ward said that the DEP was working with Assemblyman Jeffrey Klein to “create a track, similar to the pathway around the Central Park Reservoir, around the Jerome Park Reservoir” and would replace the chain-link fence with an “ornamental fence.”

The Water Board will meet on May 7 to decide on the rate increase proposed by the DEP for fiscal year 2005.