By CHRIS EBERHART
A fire hydrant bill, signed into law by Democratic New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Oct. 23, 2013, was created with the idea of lowering property taxes, but some officials say it will only hurt the ratepayers of water companies.
The bill, which was co-sponsored in the state Assembly by Democratic members Amy Paulin, Steve Otis and Thomas Abinanti, removes the cost of fire hydrant maintenance and access from a municipality’s budget and allows a private water company—in this case United Water—to charge ratepayers per their water use. In turn, the money the municipalities save must be applied to lowering property taxes.
However, Eastchester officials refuse to remove the hydrant maintenance costs from its 2014 town budget without first knowing the water rate impact on users. Town Supervisor Anthony Colavita, a Republican, said, because he believes the legislation is harmful to the taxpayers, he left United Water’s hydrant fee in the municipal budget, a desicion that county Legislator Sheila Marcotte, an Eastchester Republican, agrees with.
“No one yet knows how the ratepayer will be affected. So, until then, it seems more prudent to leave [the hydrant fees] in the municipal budget,” Marcotte said.
There are currently 435 hydrants throughout the town, and since 2010, United Water’s fire hydrant maintenance tariff has steadily increased each year from $739 per hydrant in 2010 to $992 per hydrant in 2013, or $431,520 in total for 2013. Marcotte said United Water is supposing to increase its charge per hydrant to $1,200.
Paulin said, because the fire hydrant maintenance and water use expense is being removed from the budget and spread to all water users regardless if they pay taxes or not, the ratepayers will see an increase in their water bill, but a decrease in their property tax bill. For most, she said, the decrease in the property tax bill will be greater than the increase on their water bill, which will be determined by water usage.
But Eastchester officials disagreed.
They said there’s no benefit to the ratepayer under the new law. Colavita said, “After doing a comprehensive analysis, it seems simple that there’s no benefit for the taxpayers of Eastchester.”
Marcotte echoed Colavita’s remarks.
“Taking the fees out of the municipality’s budget is good for the municipality but, in my opinion, the taxpayer will be hosed completely,” Marcotte said. “This was a rushed, feel- good, look-what-I-did-for-you legislation, but it was not thought out.”
How the bill affects the Eastchester Fire District, which pays for 28 percent of the town’s total water bill, which includes fire hydrant maintenance, was part of the legislation not fully thought out. The legislation states any savings that results from removing the fire hydrant maintenance costs must be applied to the property tax, which means, if a municipality saves $100,000, that municipality must apply it to the tax levy. But the legislation does not include what fire districts are mandated to do with the savings, which allows them to do with it as they see fit.
“The legislation is silent as it pertains to fire districts, so they will have that cost removed from their budget but do not have to apply the savings,” Marcotte said. “It is an oversight that speaks to how rushed this legislation was.”
The legislation’s effect on fire districts was something, Paulin admitted, that was overlooked.
Before the bill was signed into law, 10 Westchester municipalities—New Rochelle, Eastchester, Bronxville, Tuck-ahoe, Pelham, Pelham Manor, Port Chester, Dobbs Ferry, Ardsley and Hastings—that were using United Water and paying its water bill through property taxes, which exempt churches and hospitals, formed a coalition to have to the fee removed from their municipal budgets.
Those 10 municipalities along with a few others in Westchester are in the minority in terms of using a private water supply. According to Paulin, most of the New York State municipalities own their own water supply. Paulin said, the 10 municipalities in the coalition appointed New Rochelle to be the lead municipality and brought the issue to her. Paulin then brought the issue to the state Assembly, which passed the bill. State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, A Yonkers Democrat, sponsored the bill in the senate.
“What this bill does is align the  communities with the rest of the state,” Paulin said. “Most municipalities own their own water, so they apply all costs for water use, which includes infrastructure maintenance like the fire hydrants, to all water users.”
After Cuomo signed the bill, each municipality had to hold a public hearing. If the bill was supported by the public, as it was in Bronxville on Jan. 13, the municipality passes a resolution that is sent to the public service commission, which oversees United Water, and they have to pass resolutions and then set the water rate.
Although Eastchester officials remain opposed to the bill, Paulin said, most of the municipalities including Bronxville and Tuckahoe support it. Bronxville Mayor Mary Marvin, a Republican, said it’s all about fairness. “I think everyone that depends on a hydrant, which is everyone in the village, not just taxpayers, should share on the cost of the bill.” Marvin said.
Republican Tuckahoe Mayor Steve Ecklond, who said a public hearing on the hydrant bill will be held during the next village board meeting on Feb. 10, said the new hydrant bill will be beneficial to the taxpayer. “They are paying it now,” Ecklond said, referring to hydrant maintenance. “There’s no additional burden on the taxpayers at all. It will be a slight benefit because United Water will not only be charging homeowners and businesses, but also be charging everyone that uses water, which includes churches and schools, which are exempt from property taxes.”
Despite the overwhelming local support for the new law, Colavita said he isn’t afraid to be the sole holdout if it means doing what’s right for the taxpayers. “We’ve never been afraid to stand alone,” Colavita said. “If it’s what we think is right and if that’s what’s in the best interest of the people of Eastchester.”