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State sets hearings on sale of NYAW, extends deadline for public takeover plans

Liberty Utilities last year announced a plan to

Liberty Utilities last year announced a plan to acquire New York American Water for $607 million, a move that requires PSC approval. Credit: Danielle Silverman

A week after once again extending the deadline for proposals for a public takeover of all or part of New York American Water, the state Public Service Commission this week announced it will hold a series of virtual public hearings next week on the company's proposed purchase.

The move comes a month after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in response to Newsday, said questions about a possible takeover come down to a matter of who owns the assets.

"In concept, I understand it," Cuomo said, when asked if he supported a possible public takeover for the primarily Nassau-County based water system. "With a lot of these utilities the question becomes, who owns what legally?"

The PSC earlier this year issued a notice seeking proposals from municipalities and authorities "for the acquisition of all or part of NYAW’s infrastructure." Liberty Utilities last year announced a plan to acquire New York American Water for $607 million, a move that requires PSC approval.

Public hearings, which will take place online and via telephone, start with two sessions on Nov. 4 and continue on Nov. 5, Nov. 10 and Nov. 12. Earlier this month, the state extended until Dec. 31 the period for comments "from any municipalities and authorities in the NYAW service areas that seek to provide plans or proposals for acquisition of all or part of NYAW’s infrastructure."

Documents about the potential sale of New York American Water, and the state's hearings, can be found at the PSC’s website here. The public can also submit written comments to the PSC via email at secretary@dps.ny.gov.

Cuomo, in the aftermath of PSEG Long Island’s much-criticized response to Tropical Storm Isaias, said he would soon offer legislation that would help settle utility ownership issues that could cloud such takeovers, while proposing harsher penalties for failure to perform.

"I’m talking about increasing the penalties when utilities fail to perform and accelerating our ability to take the franchise from the utility," he said at the time. "Some of the utilities are saying, well, we own the pipes, we own the wires, we own the cables. So it’s a complicated legal issue."

But, Cuomo added, "many of these utilities are abusive and they have been for a long time. And the concept of too big to fail, you know, who speaks up for the consumer? Ah, the state government speaks up for the consumer. I speak up for the consumer."

Cuomo isn't the only public official pushing for change.

"Outrageous and unjustifiable water bills have been the No. 1 complaint my office has received over the past few years. It is way past time for New York American Water to leave the scene," said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach). "All options, including municipalization, need to be considered."

State Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford), who has led scrutiny of New York American Water for several years, said he believes the public hearings will "absolutely" be a forum for ratepayers to express their opinion on the future direction of the company. "The drumbeat for a public takeover is getting louder and louder and louder," he said.

Lee Mueller, a spokeswoman for New York American Water, declined to comment.

Customer and watchdog groups, including Long Island Clean Air Water Soil, and North Shore Concerned Citizens, have been aggressively pushing for a public takeover. Already, the Massapequa Water District has put forth a plan to take over the company’s infrastructure and nearly 5,000 customers in the East Massapequa district, and Hempstead Town and Sea Cliff Village are conducting separate feasibility studies to determine whether a takeover makes economic sense.

Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin said the town will submit comments on its plans to the PSC "as soon as practicable."

"Once the feasibility study is completed and thoroughly reviewed, the town will explore all viable options available," Clavin said.

Long Island CAWS, the watchdog group, said in a statement it "vehemently opposes the $608 million sale to another foreign corporate conglomerate which will surely result in higher and higher water rates for NYAW’s beleaguered ratepayers."

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