Water Rate Hike Will Drip Residents Dry

by Andres Amerikaner

Borough residents are bracing for an 11.5 percent rise in city water rates, the largest in 15 years, which would take effect in July.

But the increase, which would cost the average apartment dweller an additional $66 annually, is only the beginning. The New York City Water Board is planning similar increases for the next three years. By 2010, the average bill would go up more than $300.

“It’s going to be catastrophic,” said Jim Buckley, director of University Neighborhood Housing Program, a nonprofit that works on affordable housing in the northwest Bronx. “This is going to be a killer.”

At a water board hearing Wednesday at Lehman College, however, only about 10 borough officials and residents testified against the increase. The feeling was that little could be done to stop it before the water board takes its final vote on May 14.

“To turn around and jack the rates 11.5 percent in one year is unconscionable,” said Michael Murphy, a borough resident and disabled war veteran. “I don’t see any future for the little guy in New York City.”

The water board said the increase is necessary to offset surging wages and the cost of chemical treatment of waste water, as well as to finance a $23 billion capital improvement plan over the next 11 years.

To top it off, water consumption this year is down about 2 percent, said Steven Lawitts, the executive director of the water board. Lower demand means higher rates, he said.

“It’s not right that those rates go up as we conserve more,” said Councilman James Vacca, a borough Democrat. “That was not the original intent of installing water meters.”

In addition, the Croton water filtration plant project, which was to be completed by 2006, has had many costly delays and is not scheduled to be finished until 2011. The city has been assessed more than $1 million in federal fines because a construction contract has not been made final. As the price tag for the project goes up, the water board must find a way to make up the difference.

But the biggest worry is that a rate increase would result in more foreclosures or debt for borough residents on fixed incomes.

“This is another change that could push them over the edge,” said Pat Logan, director of development for the Fordham Bedford Housing Corp., a group that manages or owns 90 apartment buildings in the borough.

Because incomes are generally lower in the Bronx than in the rest of the city, any increase would have a much greater impact on residents, Buckley said.

It would not be rational to establish a separate rate schedule for low-income residents, Lawitts said.

“The rate has to reflect the cost of delivering the service,” he said. “We believe that the 11.5 percent increase is the amount necessary.”

Figures released by the water board show city water charges are low in relation to household income when compared with that of other major U.S. cities. But the University Neighborhood Housing Program compiled the same numbers, singling out the Bronx and certain neighborhoods, and painted a grimmer picture.

The borough ranked 14 positions below the city as a whole, next to Newark, Boston and New Orleans, in a 24-city comparison. Neighborhoods like Morrisania and Mott Haven fared worse than every major city, beating Atlanta and Philadelphia for the highest water charges in proportion to household income.

Last week’s hearings, which were also held at locations in the other boroughs, were the public’s last chance to testify against the increased rates before the water board’s vote.

“There’s a certain amount of preordained aspect to this,” Buckley said. “It’d be nice to have more people.”