Harrison Water Rates Hiked 17 Percent

The Harrison Town Council approved a 17 percent water rate hike on July 5, just days after a relatively nominal–yet nonetheless dramatic– 11 percent increase was estimated by town officials.

The 3-2 approval of the new rates came after representatives of Westchester Joint Water Works made a public presentation, which had several members of the council scoffing at the fiscal management of the utility.

The Westchester Joint Water Works, a utility jointly run by municipal leaders in Mamaroneck and Harrison, proposed the town approve the hike for the 2012-2013 fiscal year in order to keep up with the increased cost of supply from New York City, where the water works purchases its water. The city increased its sales rates by 9.8 percent.

This originally appeared in the July 13, 2012 edition of The Harrison Report. 

David Birdsall, the business director of the water works, explained that whenever the city levies an increase, the water works must alter the rating structure in each of its municipalities it services.

“We have a system that was perhaps not at a level it should have been,” Birdsall said. “But this rate is something we expect will balance out quite well going forward.”

Based on figures provided by Birdsall prior to the increase, the adopted base rate will increase by 55 cents to a fee of $3.76 per 100 cubic feet. This tier is the lowest applicable cost up to 6,600 cubic feet of water provided.

For residents, the typical costs will increase to a calculated $4.53 rate per 100 cubic feet of water pumped into their homes. This rate tier maxes out at roughly 15,000 cubic feet. The highest costing tier, for residents exceeding the 15,000 cubic feet, will increase 77 cents to a rate of $5.31 per 100 cubic feet. Additional surcharges will also be included on resident’s upcoming water bill.

However, members of Harrison’s Town Council became dismayed upon learning the proposed rate increase was 7.2 percent higher than the mandatory rate from the city Department of Environmental Protection.

According to Water Works Manager Anthony Conetta, this was primarily due to a 12 percent increase to the operating budget. This consists of several capital expenses including rehabilitation to two of the town’s pump stations–one on Park Lane and one on Woodside Avenue–and the cost of a new SCADA water radar system, which monitors water usage.

“The status of our current SCADA system is primitive at best,” Conetta said.

Councilman Steve Malfitano, a Republican who as mayor of the town from 2002-2007 sat on the water works Board of Directors, was especially aggravated in finding a capital line item budgeted as an operating expense.

“This raises the question of what else is included in the operating budget,” Malfitano said. “I almost want to say, ‘go back and sharpen your pencil.’”

Both Councilman Malfitano and Republican Councilman Joe Cannella opposed the rate increase because of the addition of a $350,000 capital expense to the operating budget would cost more for a short-term expense.

“Rather than advertising it in 10 or 12 years, you intend to knock it all out in one year,” Cannella said. “This should’ve been a capital expense and not done all at once.”

In the past, when the water works increased its local rates, municipal officials did not impose increases to reflect this. Because of this, a deficit was built over the years, which more recently has necessitated larger rate hikes each year to catch up as it were.

This resulted in an influx of rate fees in both member municipalities, and played a key role in 2010 when the water rates increased by 28 percent. The same year the Village of Mamaroneck saw rates hit all-time high of 75 percent.

“Previous managers have wasted millions because of ego, instead of working together,” said Councilman Fred Sciliano, who voted in favor of the increase.

Because of past situations in which the water works disregarded the individual budgets of the member municipalities, the local comptrollers have been brought into the discussions in order to fully investigate line items called to question.

“How much these capital expenses add to the 17 percent rate increase is something that I think has to be looked at,” Town Comptroller Maureen MacKenzie said.

Bringing the conversation to a halt by coercing the council into a decision, Conetta explained that if the town rejected the proposed rate increase, Harrison would be penalized for purchasing water going over and above the mandatory 9.8 percent rate.

“Right now, water is one of the cheapest commodities and one of the cheapest utilities,” Conetta said. “Each day there is not a rate increase, water is being purchased at a 10 percent rate from New York City which is not being passed along to the customer.” The penalties for failing to meet the rates set by the water works and the DEP would send water costs skyrocketing in future years.

This swayed Councilwoman Marlene Amelio to vote in favor of the rate increase, which is expected to boost the average household cost by an additional $86.39 a year for water.

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