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Suffolk, water authority at odds over collecting unpaid bills

Suffolk Water Authority, looking to recoup $600,000 a year from those who do not pay their water bills, has gotten state legislation passed to allow the agency to put a lien on those customers’ property tax bills.

But county officials, including Suffolk Comptroller John M. Kennedy and County Executive Steve Bellone, are asking Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to veto the measure, fearing it could add to cash flow problems for the county, which is already facing a $212 million budget shortfall next year. The county is worried that it would have to front the money to the authority until property owners pay.

Kennedy said authority officials never discussed the issue with the county, sought a home rule message from county lawmakers or weighed its impact on is finances.

“While the sponsors . . . may have been well-intentioned, I believe this matter required much more analysis, impact and cost assessment before it achieves the full weight of law,” he said.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said, “The county executive shares the comptroller’s concerns,” saying the legislation could have “a significant cash flow impact and compound our existing fiscal difficulties . . . Basically, this is an attempt to have Suffolk County become the collection agent for the water authority.”.

Water authority officials say the law just extends to the authority a power that the state already gives to local water districts. They maintain there is no intent to have the county front the money to the authority, but only turn over money owed when it is collected from water customers who are delinquent. The measure would allow the county to keep penalties and interest due.

What has county officials worried is that the county already advances unpaid bills to water districts. Huntington Tax Receiver Ester Bivona, head of the county tax receiver’s association, said the county currently fronts money to water districts for those who fail to pay bills as it does to towns and school districts for unpaid property taxes.

Bivona said Huntington has water districts in Greenlawn, which last year had $224,000 in delinquencies, South Huntington, $265,000, and Dix Hills $106,000, all of which were covered by the county. She also said some taxpayer intentionally fail to pay water bills so they can include it as part of their tax bill to take a tax deduction, even though it does not legally qualify.

Tim Hopkins, authority counsel, said water districts collect a combination of both taxes and water rates and the state law governing towns requires collection of water rates as if they were taxes, which means the county must advance the money to water districts. He said the county would only pay the authority when the money is collected from delinquents. He said the authority officials did not consult the county because they saw no fiscal impact.

The measure, sponsored by Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (WFP-Sag Harbor) and Thomas Croci (R-Sayville) amends the state public authorities law to allow the water authority by Nov. 1 of each year to send each town’s receiver of taxes a list of properties 90 day or more overdue on their water bills so that the charge can be placed on a separate line of town tax bills listed as “water charge.”

Hopkins said the authority currently writes off about $600,000 a year in unpaid water bills from 3,000 to 4,000 customers. He said the agency in the past has hired outside firms to make collections of delinquent customers. About a year ago, the authority hired Penn Credit Corp. to make collections on the overdue debt, but only collected about $147,000 and had to pay the private agency 22.5 percent of what was collected as a fee.

Thiele said county concerns are “greatly overblown,” noting the authority only wants to have a sure of way of collect unpaid bills. “The way to resolve this is not by anyone shooting their mouths off,” he said. “If necessary we can pass a chapter amendment to make the law crystal clear.”


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