High-bill complaints to the Suffolk County Water Authority have jumped 35% this year and disgruntled ratepayers contend the water company’s systems are at fault.
Agency officials stand by their meters and say the spike in complaints is related to a 2-year-old "conservation" charge and a hot, dry summer.
The problem for the water authority's nearly 400,000 customers: Beyond the agency’s standard complaint process, there is no independent body to field and resolve such complaints. Like other municipal water suppliers in the state, the Suffolk Water Authority isn’t regulated by the Public Service Commission and answers only to its board of directors.
The 7,441 complaints to the nonprofit water authority this year are an increase of 1,936 over the 5,505 high-bill complaints in 2019, the agency said.
The authority in 2019 instituted a second-tier rate called a conservation rate that hikes the unit charge for those who use more than 78,540 gallons during a 3-month billing period. The conservation charge was hiked another 5% this year, while the authority held rates on use under 78,540 gallons. Conservation rates are aimed at curtailing high usage to preserve the Island's vital aquifers.
For ratepayers like Donald Kirby of Mattituck, who has challenged his spring/summer water bill, complaints to Suffolk Water have netted little in the way of satisfaction. Kirby said authority technicians came to his house to test the meter, review his sprinkler system and check for leaks, but that was more than a month ago, and he hasn’t heard from the water authority since. Now he’s getting late notices for a bill he continues to dispute.
Kirby, as reported in Newsday in October, received an August bill for $779 after the authority said he’d used more than 273,000 gallons between May and August. That compares with just 77,000 gallons for the period a year ago. Kirby said he found the bill particularly suspect because he and his wife had been in Florida during the entire month of June due to COVID restrictions.
He’s not the only one who has complained of higher usage. One Bay Shore customer who requested his name not be used received a November bill of $1,406.11, for more than 476,000 gallons over a three-month period, according to copies of his bills shown to Newsday and verified by the authority.
Tim Hopkins, chief legal officer for the water authority, said it’s "not an issue with the meter so far as we can determine." More likely, he said, was that the property experienced a leak "at some time."
"We have nearly 400,000 accounts, and every quarter somebody leaves their water on and gets a high water bill," he said. "There’s no way for the authority to prevent that from happening."
The Suffolk County Legislature, which appoints Suffolk Water Authority board members, has no legal jurisdiction over authority rates and practices, said Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore).
But Cilmi does get involved in advocating for his constituents with high water bills. In the case of the handful who have complained to his office this year, Cilmi said he’s been able to show how the conservation rate was behind the higher bills. But the Bay Shore homeowner with the $1,406.11 bill "obviously has a different situation." Cilmi said he’d normally call water authority chief executive Jeff Szabo directly.
"I’d say, Jeff, this is absolutely ridiculous. Prove to me something’s not wrong on your side," Cilmi said.
Added Suffolk Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), "The question is going to be, do these two cases stand out as extreme examples of increased water bills, or did others experience it, not complain and just pay it?"
Either way, Cilmi said, "It’s unfair to hit somebody with that kind of a bill and expect him to pay it all at once."
There’s also no way for customers to know in advance of their bill that they are using inordinate amounts of water. The authority recently polled customers to ask if they’d pay $1 per bill for a new system that would give them daily usage amounts. Eighty percent said they didn’t want it, Hopkins said.
The authority uses the same type of meters it has always used, with new transmitters that send signals to trucks that pass by four times a year.
Hopkins said technicians found "several" broken sprinkler heads on Kirby’s system, including one missing that could lead to high water use. Kirby said he had the system checked by the installer, who found no such problems.
Hopkins said there’s little else the company can do beyond put a customer on a payment plan when they receive a high bill. The authority will give a 50% "wasted-water" credit if a leak is discovered in the copper pipe between a streetside meter and the home.
As for the Bay Shore customer, "It looks like there was probably a leak or water was negligently left on during the summer and it was discovered and fixed and usage dropped precipitously," he said. The homeowner disputed that account.
Hopkins said customers several times a year take the authority to small claims court but "typically they’re not successful." Writing to the authority’s board will likely result in a request to staff to look into the problem and report back, but that also rarely results in a credit. "Unless there was some extraordinary thing that came to light, they [the board] would probably sustain the determination made by the staff," Hopkins said.
The authority works with Suffolk legislators on constituent complaints and other matters "on a regular basis," he added.
There is a way for customers to tell if their water system has a leak that could be causing bills to increase, he said. Most meters, he said, have a triangular device on them that spins when water is running through the meter. Turn off all the water in the house, and if it’s still spinning, there’s likely a leak. He also recommended customers check sprinkler systems to make sure all heads are on and valves not stuck open.
The authority operates on a fiscal year that starts June 1. It’s currently undergoing a rate study by an outside consultant. Hopkins said that study, and the authority's board, will determine if there’s any increase next year.
Customer Marc Horowitz of Northport said he, too, complained about excessive usage on his bill, with year-over-year usage up 178,000 gallons for a $790 summer bill. He had the water authority change and test his meter. The findings: His old meter was actually underreporting usage, according to a letter he showed Newsday. The water authority said it doesn’t bill for past under-recording, though Horowitz was told he had to pay the full summer bill he claimed was higher than normal. "They are an entity unto themselves and everybody else be damned," Horowitz said.
For those who say the Public Service Commission should regulate the Suffolk Water Authority, Hopkins pointed to Nassau County, where more than 120,000 customers are served by PSC-regulated New York American Water. "Many of those residents and quite a few public officials are lobbying for SCWA to take over and provide their water service, because SCWA rates, in comparison, are so much lower," he said. "While we’re always open to new ideas, we’re confident that our procedures — in which a customer can appeal a high bill to our customer service department, our board, their county legislator, small claims court and the state attorney general — are the most beneficial for our ratepayers."
Hopkins said more than 99.9% of the high-bill complaints were resolved in the water company’s favor, largely because the meters are so rarely wrong.
Customers who don’t like the resolution are free to take their case to small claims or higher courts, depending on the amount of the claim, he said.
Hopkins said the difference between average and high users of water is fairly cut and dried. "People who do a lot of irrigation had higher water bills."
But the Bay Shore customer has no pool or sprinkler system, has children in day care and, because he and his wife are considered "essential workers," they are rarely home during the day.
"I agree, those numbers sound way out of whack," said Suffolk Legis. Steve Flotteron (R-Brightwaters), who reviewed the Bay Shore customer's bill. Asked if increased oversight of the utility was in order, he said, "It might be something we need to discuss in the future."
For his part, Hopkins acknowledged that the conservation rate, while generating more than $7 million in revenue for the authority through October, "didn’t work" to reduce water usage over the summer, in part because of the hot, dry weather. High-use customers "can’t instantaneously change their behavior until they get the higher bill," he said.
How to tell if you have a leak
Most water meters have a triangular device on them that spins when water is running through the meter. Turn off all the water in the house, and if it’s still spinning, there’s likely a leak.