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Eye-popping water bills lead to flood of complaints

Donald Kirby, of Mattituck, said he wants to know why his most recent Suffolk County Water Authority bill was so high.  Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Donald Kirby of Mattituck said if his Suffolk County Water Authority bill is even remotely accurate, he and his wife would be floating in a sea of 273,843 gallons of water used in just two months this summer.

The water authority sent him his highest bill yet for the usage, over $700, when he’s used to bills of $20 to $40, he said.

"Something is definitely out of whack," Kirby said.

Kirby is not alone. The Suffolk water authority experienced a spike in customer complaints in September after customers received quarterly water bills for the summer periods of June through August. In the month of September alone, bill complaints are up 36% from a year ago — 2,257 this year, from 1,656 for the month last year.

Suffolk water authority chief executive Jeff Szabo blamed a warm dry summer and a new conservation-rate tier that charged high-water users a more expensive rate when they used more than 73,000 gallons.

"This time of year, in the fall, we typically get calls from customers to call centers asking about a high bill, [because] they’re being billed for summer use," Szabo said of the bills, which are sent quarterly. "It’s not uncommon, saying ‘It’s not possible I used this much water.’ "

The conservation rate has generated around $7.1 million in new revenue for the authority since it was instituted April 1 — revenue coming from the biggest water users.

Szabo said summer bills for customers can be three to five times more than bills for the rest of the year. Customers who use more than 78,540 gallons jump to a higher tier of cost. The authority held rates for those who use less than that amount, a fact that Szabo said protects the vast majority of customers from cost increases — some 75% never hit the higher tier.

Seth Wallach, a community outreach coordinator for the Suffolk authority, said he looked into Kirby’s bill and believes much of the increase is because the Mattituck resident turned off a private well for irrigation this year, and he’s now watering his property with metered water. "That could be the cause of the increase. We’re not sure exactly when the switch was made."

Kirby said the private well was turned off in June 2018 — but his summer 2019 bill was $184.19 for 77,007 gallons used. This year’s summer bill was $779.11 for 273,843 gallons. That’s a higher bill and more water than he typically uses over several years, according to his records. His one-story ranch home is on a half-acre of property.

The bill is particularly suspect, he said, given that he wasn’t even home for all of June. He and his wife, Doreen, spend half the year in Florida, and didn’t return this year until July 3, because of COVID concerns. The Kirbys also didn’t open their pool at all this summer, a factor that should have led to a reduction, given that the family refilled their pool in previous years.

It’s not just the Suffolk Water Authority fielding complaints. The South Huntington Water District has seen what chairman Paul Tonna described as a "tsunami" of complaints from customers — 35 in all for the summer period — plus the start of a social media page complaining about high water bills and inflated usage. Tonna said the district rarely gets that level of complaints.

He blamed the spike in bills on more customers being home in the pandemic.

"The big increase is usage," Tonna said, "but the biggest is because people are home. We’re concerned about it, we’re seeing, the meters are right, people are using a lot more water."

One poster in an online forum about the South Huntington district described water bills for the past year as "astronomical," another said her bill was double compared with last summer, a third said his usage was reported to be 130,000 gallons more this summer.

Tonna said the district did institute a 5-cent increase for its tiered rates this fiscal year, and with a basic service charge of $8 for up to 8,000 gallons, and water billed at 95 cents per 1,000 gallons for 9,000 to 50,000 gallons, and $1.76 per 1,000 gallons for 101,000 gallons and over.

The complaints, he said, "Threw us for a really big curve, and we are trying to take this as seriously as possible."

Joseph Nappi of Huntington said he saw his July 2020 water usage in the district more than double to 29,000 gallons for the three month period this summer, from 13,000 gallons from July a year ago.

The Department of Public Service, which regulates investor-owned water companies in the state, said it has received a total of 33 high-bill complaints from New York American Water customers throughout all of 2020, and while they are up in September and the half-month of October, the numbers are relatively small: seven in September and seven thus far in October. In 2019 total high-bill complaints by New York American Water customers numbered 96, with 11 in September and 45 in October. Spokesman said only four cases from October remain open. All others have been resolved or closed. New York American Water, which is in the process of being sold, has around 125,000 Nassau customers.

Both companies are reviewing bills with customers, sending technicians to inspect and test meters. Both have installed new electronic smart meters to make meter reading easier. Tonna said the prospect of smart meters potentially being impacted by August’s power outages during Tropical Storm Isaias is "something worth exploring … It’s something we should investigate."

Szabo said the company will review usage records with customers, and send technicians out to change and test the meter at the authority’s Hauppauge center. In more than 99% of the cases the meter is correct, Szabo said, and those that aren’t tend to favor customers, not the company.

But Kirby and other customers say there’s no way they could have used so much water in so short a time span.

Kirby has already scheduled an appointment for a plumber to check if there are leaks, but he’s got other suspicions.

"Something is wrong in either their calibration of the meter or the type of meter reading they use," he said. "Short of them doing their meter checks, I need some kind of idea where a quarter-million gallons of water would have gone. I would have been on a swamp."

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