Local officials tout public utility change in New York American Water hearing

Assemblyman Ed Ra (R-Franklin Square) speaks in favor of turning New York American Water into a public utility at a hearing on Tuesday. (Screencap by Rose Weldon)

Local officials and ratepayers voiced support for the private New York American Water to become a public utility at a hearing Tuesday night.

The hearing is the latest development since Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed Rory I. Lancman, special counsel for ratepayer protection at the state’s Department of Public Service, to start a municipalization feasibility study on the company.

On the North Shore, New York American Water covers the Glen Head and Sea Cliff areas in addition to East Rockaway, Roosevelt, Bellmore and parts of Merrick on the South Shore. American Water has about 124,000 customers systemwide, including about 120,000 customers on Long Island.

The state is currently reviewing the sale of the Merrick-based water company to Liberty Utilities Co., another private utility, and the proceeding has triggered strong local interest in reviewing options for a potential public takeover of the system. Cuomo included a provision in his utility reform legislation introduced in November that requires the issuance of a study by April 1 on the feasibility of a public takeover of American Water and directed the Department of Public Service to begin the study immediately. 

State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) was the hearing’s first speaker, and said that his constituents in the Sea Cliff, Glen Head and Glenwood Landing areas were paying between five, six or seven times the cost of public water under New York American.

“We need public water, and that’s why I’m fully supportive of these efforts to complete this study,” Gaughran said. “We are well on our way, we have a feasibility study, we know a lot of the facts and we are prepared to go to public water.”

Gaughran added that he had legislation ready to create a public North Shore Water Authority in the vein of the Great Neck and Suffolk County water authorities. An extension of the Jericho Water District or an altogether new water district could also be created, he said, but cautioned that such a plan could take years when change was needed immediately.

“I think that we’re ready to go now,” Gaughran said. “We would like to move sooner rather than later.”

Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) was next to speak, and recalled a 2017 public hearing where a ratepayer criticized the company for making such a profit on a staple as essential as water.

“The essential question for us as citizens and as residents of the North Shore of Long Island is that water is such an incredibly essential component of life,” Lavine said. “At that meeting, on August the ninth of 2017, and I remember it very well, our friend and neighbor Agatha Nadell spoke with such passion and such conviction about the fact that we are all in this together, and no one should make an ordinate profit on the selling of such an essential component of life.”

Assemblyman Ed Ra (R-Franklin Square) said in his comments that since private water companies couldn’t receive public funds for necessary repairs, a public entity would be the best next step.

“I think the path forward for this area is with a public entity,” Ra said. “The state is making big investments in more infrastructure. And we’re dealing with things like emerging contaminants and and dealing with all these issues. And it is just another detriment to the service area because a private entity, they’re not even eligible for [public funds] and [ratepayers] end up having to pay more … it’s very clear from the constituents I spoke with that they want a public entity.”

Nassau County Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove), who criticized New York American in the past, described the study to create a public utility as “a glimmer of hope.”

“With water, there’s no other option, you can’t shop around,” DeRiggi-Whitton said.

She added that in Port Washington, which operates under the public Port Washington Water District, the district received $18 million in government funding to address its issues.

“Because American Water is a private company we received zero in this district,” she said. “And in my opinion, American Water inflated what they decided to do in our area by adding a shed [to a proposed water treatment project in Glen Head], which they did not include when they did this in Roosevelt, it was a million dollar increase and it’s still there.”

Following more public hearings with other ratepayers across the island, the feasibility study regarding a public takeover of New York American Water is expected to be filed April 1.

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Rose Weldon

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