The Suffolk County Water Authority's ranking in an annual JD Power customer satisfaction survey of Northeast water companies released this month dropped five points and remained third from last.
The decline follows a year in which the water authority saw a 35% jump in high-bill complaints, most tied to higher usage that triggered a second-tier water rate.
The public Suffolk authority saw its customer satisfaction score drop to 719 of a possible 1,000 points in the 2021 survey, which was conducted in four waves from June 2020 through March of 2021. The score last year was 724. The average score among the nine listed Northeast water utilities was 738.
JD Power, in a statement accompanying the rankings, noted most water providers saw their scores remain relatively stable during the year. Higher water use, bigger bills and "lack of effective communication" during the pandemic were cited as the chief factors weighing on satisfaction scores.
Suffolk’s water authority in 2020 saw its high-bill complaints increase for the year, as warmer weather and stay-at-home workers increased consumption. Around 7,441 customers lodged bill complaints in Suffolk during 2021, compared with 5,505 the year before.
Most water use takes place in the summer, when lawn and garden irrigation and pool filling are at their height. Suffolk, like other Long Island utilities, also has a second-tier conservation rate that charges users more when they hit a certain threshold. Earlier this year, the authority said it was raising the threshold for that higher-tier rate to 89,760 gallons, from a prior 78,540 gallons, partly in response to customer feedback. Suffolk water authority bills overall are scheduled to increase an average 3.7%, or around $1.56 a month, starting June 1.
In a statement, the Suffolk water authority spokesman downplayed the JD Power results.
"As we have opted when asked to not spend a considerable amount of ratepayer money to participate in the [JD Power] survey, we cannot speak to its methodology or results," he wrote. "However, we’re extremely proud of our just-reaffirmed AAA bond ratings, our low water rates and our internal standards for drinking-water quality that are more protective than state or federal regulations."
The JD Power Survey polls customers on 33 "attributes" within six major categories: quality and reliability; price; conservation; billing and payment; communications; and customer service.
The JD Power ranking didn’t include any other Long Island water utilities, including embattled New York American Water, because the ranking only includes utilities that serve 400,000 customers or more. But American Water’s sister companies fared better than most in neighboring states. New Jersey American Water, for instance, ranked first in the Northeast, with a 760 score. Pennsylvania American Water ranked fifth, with 734 points.
Overall, JD Power said, the average 737 customer overall score among the 90 utilities surveyed nationwide was relatively even from 2020 to 2021.
Service interruptions were a problem for some utilities, notably in Texas.
"Between the massive weather event in Texas and the overall heightened sense of anxiety among consumers who have been spending more time at home and consuming more water, the past year has put local water utilities to the test," Andrew Heath, senior director of utilities intelligence, said in a statement.