Sunday, October 07, 2007

Torture by Water Board

Torture by Water Board
Sunday, October 7th 2007, 4:00 AM

Editorial: The city's Water Board is about to dole out a huge rate increase, but are too clueless to explain why the books are out of balance."

The city's Water Board is gearing up to sock New York homeowners with a huge rate increase, the second such hike in just a few months. We wish we could explain why the board has to boost its bills. But we can't tell you the reason because the board is clueless as to why its books are out of balance.

Inept? Absolutely.

Outrageous? You bet.

A bureaucracy crying out for intense attention from the mayor? Yes. Yes. Yes.

The Water Board is an offshoot of the Department of Environmental Protection that pays for projects that keep the city supplied with H2O, including construction of the mammoth Water Tunnel No. 3. The board gets its money by billing property owners for water use.

The bills have risen as the board invested increasing amounts in the tunnel and other vital facilities. As planned, rates jumped by 11.5% in July. But then, as the board tells it, New York residential property owners by the thousands simply stopped sending in their checks.

Both homeowners and the landlords of apartment buildings. All across the city. All of a sudden. For no apparent reason. Leaving the board millions of dollars in the red and planning to jack up rates by an astonishing 18.5% in January. None of this makes sense.

Have Con Ed customers decided to go deadbeat in droves? No. Is the city Finance Department experiencing a tremendous spike in real estate tax delinquencies? No. So what's with the Water Board? The answer: pure incompetence.

Bills get mailed to wrong addresses, or are addressed to people who moved years ago. Some customers are never charged for water they use. And when customers stop paying, the board does nothing. Its tally of uncollected bills is now an astronomical $560 million.

Property owners - call them suckers if you like - who send in checks are bearing that cost, just as the board now wants them to pick up the tab for the unexplained surge in unpaid bills.

The board has its defenses. Executive Director Steve Lawitts says that he's working hard to straighten out the billing department and that the agency has been forced to work without proper collection muscle. Most importantly, it doesn't have the power to slap liens on properties, the way tax collectors use liens to force people to pay up.

The City Council must, pronto, give the board the authority to use liens to go after deadbeats.
And the board must, even more quickly, get its act together and stop soaking the public.

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