Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has signed legislation that will allow the Suffolk County Water Authority to collect on nearly $600,000 in annual unpaid water bills that the agency now writes off, by issuing tax liens.
“We’re thrilled,” said Jeff Szabo, authority chief executive officer. “This is a victory for water authority customers who pay their bills on time.”
Cuomo also signed similar legislation for the Water Authority of Great Neck North.
SCWA officials say they will continue their present collection efforts, but they have 3,000 to 4,000 customers each year who fail to make payments within 120 days. Over the last five years, the authority has written off an average of $580,000 annually.
While authority officials say they do not expect the change to result in a rate reduction, they say that it could be used to offset future rate hikes. Authority officials do not expect to be able to issue liens in time for 2017 tax bills that go out early in December, but will be ready for 2018.
The governor’s action came even though Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. expressed concerns about the measure. They said it could put an extra burden on Suffolk’s finances, by forcing the county to advance funds to the SCWA for unpaid bills as it does for unpaid property taxes for towns, villages and town water districts.
Authority officials say the state legislation, sponsored by Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and state Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville), would not require the county to front money to the authority, and the county would only pay the agency when it collects from delinquent customers.
County and SCWA officials have met several times and are working on an agreement to ensure a smooth transition.
“We think we have a framework to make sure that there’s not a problem,” said Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider. He said he expects a final pact within several weeks.
Szabo said the authority will meet with town tax officials to deal with any issues or questions that might arise.
Kennedy said he still has serious concerns over the legislation, saying it will impose significant paperwork on his staff and town tax receivers, with very little return. He said if a customer’s overdue bill for six months is $180, a 10 percent penalty will amount to $18.
“I think the governor has failed to see he is imposing yet another unfunded mandate on this office and turned us into a collection agency for the water authority,” Kennedy said.