By CHRIS EBERHART
United Water’s most recent tariff proposal to the state Public Service Commission would increase fire hydrant maintenance fees and raise water rates, but a coalition of Westchester municipalities will again band together to push back against the company.
Every four years, United Water has to renew its tariff, which expires on Oct. 31 of this year. This year, the water service company is proposing a 36.9 percent increase to hydrant maintenance fees and a 22.9 percent increase to the water rate, which equals a $14.4 million increase.
Eastchester Town Supervisor Anthony Colavita, a Republican, said the public service commission doesn’t have local municipalities’ budgets, or the public’s wallet, in mind.
“The public service commission, which is appointed by the governor, is more concerned about getting a reasonable rate of return for shareholders of United Water instead of protecting the public,” Colavita said. “They told me a few years ago, a 10 to 11 percent return is reasonable…It’s unreasonable and unfathomable that they would secure such a high return for shareholders.”
Westchester County Legislator Sheila Marcotte, an Eastchester Republican, agreed.
“No one should be getting that high of a return,” Marcotte said. “I have a CD in the bank, and I’m a getting fraction of 1 percent on my return.”
According to United Water, the proposed increases are necessary “to recover capital investments and increased operating costs.” United Water said it has spent $40 million over the past three years on Westchester County infrastructure, especially after several hurricanes and storms.
In addition to the infrastructure costs, operating costs such as property and franchise taxes for United Water New Rochelle and United Water Westchester, which are different entities, increased by $1.5 million to $8 million in New Rochelle and by $200,000 to $2.2 million in Westchester, according to the water service company.
In 2010, United Water proposed a fire hydrant maintenance fee of $1,500 per hydrant per year, which was “absurd,” according to Marcotte.
That proposal gave birth to the United Water Municipal Consortium, which consists of nine Westchester municipalities—including Eastchester, New Rochelle, Bronxville and Tuckahoe—that fought to scale the original proposal back, which it did successfully from $1,500 to four-year incremental increases from $739 to $992.
The consortium also pushed for the hydrant bill, which removed hydrant maintenance from the municipal budget and charged all rate payers instead of just taxpayers, which excludes institutions such as churches, universities and hospitals, in an attempt to lower property taxes.
“We’re going to apply the same pressure and the same logic now as we did four years ago,” Marcotte said.
Even though the original 2010 proposal was scaled back, officials say United Water is still overcharging for hydrant maintenance.
Colavita said the cost of fire hydrant maintenance, which is the same among all the municipalities in the consortium, under the current tariff had scheduled incremental increases every year. Now, Colavita said, United Water is proposing to set the hydrant maintenance fee at $1,325 per hydrant.
Regardless of the cost, Marcotte and Colavita question if United Water is actually maintaining the hydrants at all.
Marcotte said there’s a hydrant by her house that’s had a cover over it and an out-of-order sign since November, and Colavita said that lack of attention is present throughout all of Eastchester.
“It’s all for fire hydrant main-tenance, but they never maintain any of the hydrants in the town,” Colavita said. “It’s ludicrous. And we fully intend to combat this application to raise the water rates and fire hydrant maintenance.”
According to an email sent by New Rochelle City Manager Charles Strome to the other municipalities in the consortium, which was obtained by the Eastchester Review, the municipalities met in late January and decided to hire an attorney, Daniel Duthie, who specializes in utilities, as they prepare to battle United Water and the public service commission.
In order to pay for Duthie’s services, which cost a total of $98,000, the nine municipalities split the bill based on the number of water rate users, which is why New Rochelle and Eastchester are paying the largest amounts at $47,236 and $19,992, respectively. Bronxville and Tuckahoe are each paying $4,116.
Colavita said there should be a 2-percent cap on the public service commission like the 2-percent cap on a municipality’s property tax levy and issued a challenge to the governor to get involved and protect the municipalities.
“If a municipal government has to deal with a cap for its tax levy, then so should United Water for its rates,” Colavita said. “Let’s see what the public service commission does with that. Furthermore, I call upon the governor to intervene to make sure the taxpayers and rate payers are protected.”
Strome and Tuckahoe Mayor Steve Ecklond could not be reached for comment as of press time.