The Suffolk County Water Authority will place liens on properties of customers with accounts at least 90 days overdue and in excess of $1,000, an effort, agency officials said, to collect more than $10 million in delinquent fees after the state disallowed service shut-offs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The authority added, though, that it plans to work with customers on payment plans.
"We understand that many of our customers have faced financial hardships during these unprecedented times,” Jeffrey Szabo, the authority's chief executive, said in a statement. “We want to work with them to find viable solutions. If residents are concerned that their account may be at risk of a lien, we encourage them to reach out to our customer service center. Our dedicated team is here to assist customers, provide guidance on payment options, and explore potential assistance programs."
The customer service center number is 631-698-9500.
The authority, which serves about 1.2 million Suffolk residents, said it will begin placing liens on properties with outstanding water bills on active accounts exceeding $1,000 and 90 days past due as of May 31 as well as all unpaid closed accounts.
In an interview, an authority spokesperson who asked not to be identified, said: "We’ve had a policy for a number of years of placing liens on closed accounts. This new initiative … was passed by our board at our June 22 meeting. The policy is in place now. The people affected, as of May 31, have until Aug. 31 to make the required payment. It’s not a payment in full, but a payment to get out of that parameter," meaning paying enough to owe less than $1,000.
The water authority said before the pandemic, it "typically" had about $4 million in past-due payments across fewer than 4,000 accounts. Now, it said past-due payments amount to more than $10 million across 30,000 accounts.
Charles Lefkowitz, the authority's board chair, said in a statement: "As the custodian of Suffolk County's water resources, it is our responsibility to ensure the financial sustainability of our operations. We recognize the challenges faced by our customers during the pandemic and appreciate the state's measures to protect their interests. However, as we move forward, it is crucial to address the mounting overdue bills to maintain the reliability and quality of our water services for the benefit of all residents."
Rebecca Sanin, president and chief executive of the Huntington Station-based nonprofit Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, had concerns.
"Certainly it doesn't surprise me at all that there has been an increase in money owed to the water authority, because not only have our neighbors been economically destabilized from COVID-19, but they are also living in an economy right now with inflation and a high cost of living without many of the assistance programs that existed during COVID-19," Sanin said in an interview. "I hope the water authority is prepared to work with our neighbors to resolve the challenges people are facing."