SUEZ rate hike inflames Rockland

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BY KATHY KAHN

Residents turned out in force on a sunny Wednesday afternoon to listen to SUEZ Water justify its proposed 13.7 percent rate hike currently being considered by the Public Service Commission. Once SUEZ was done, the floodgates opened.

One by one, residents from across the county came to the podium to condemn the company formerly called United Water for trying to “chargeback” its customers for its failed desalination plant.

Rockland, according to SUEZ, uses 25 million gallons of water per day and said it did not know the exact cost of the desalination model it built in West Haverstraw, but those who have been sticking to SUEZ’s expenditures like accountants say the $54.5 million rate increase it is proposing is to cover the cost of the failed plant.

Laurie Smyla was among the many residents who signed up to speak at the public hearing, held at Stony Point’s Senior Center. “I’ve heard this song before—these look like the same numbers you (SUEZ) used when you built the model desalination plan on Haverstraw Bay. You got a tax break from the state and you’re still trying to recoup money on a project that did not come to fruition.”

“SUEZ shareholders saw a 4.63 percent dividend on a mismanaged plan,” said another. “Why should the customers pay more? So your investors can make money?”

“My understanding is that this is a capital expense. Why are ratepayers being charged?” Robert Maloney of Pomona asked Chris Graziano, SUEZ’s general manager. “This should be the burden of your shareholders, not the ratepayers.”

Town supervisors from Stony Point (Jim Monaghan), Haverstraw (Howard Phillips), and Orangetown (Andy Stewart) got up to blast the increase and said the municipalities—and others– are joining forces—with help from  conservation groups and non-profits who want to push back SUEZ’s plan to raise rates to finance their own mistakes. They’ll have help from well-informed members of the community.

George Potanovic, a founding member of the Rockland County Water Coalition and member of  Rockland County Water Task Force, said the hearings the Public Service Commission held this week should have been postponed until more information was available.

“SUEZ did not even publish a legal notice about these hearings…Do you know how we got the word out?” Potanovic told SUEZ representatives. “Social media. You are dealing with a large group of people who are very knowledgeable about what’s been going on here with your company. If you think this is a large crowd, you are going to see a much bigger one tonight.” (An evening meeting was also held in Nyack.)

According to the water company’s customers who filled the room, they have been forking over an average of 10 percent more every year for water that “smells like a septic tank” in some parts of the county or a murky brown color in others.  “Would you want to drink this?” Dr. Maria Molders asked the crowd, holding up a bottle of brown water.  Hands shot up when she asked how many others were experiencing the same “quality” of drinking water in their own homes.

In late 2014 the PSC had rejected an effort by then-United Water to recoup losses from the desalination project at ratepayer’s expense. At the time, the PSC partly cited poor internal accounting practices by the company, leading to the ouster of former president Michael Pointing, as one reason ratepayers should not be subjected to a hike.

Reports of those accounting problems were first published by the Rockland County Times, alerting state regulators, who cited an RCT article in official state documents.

Pointing’s attorney Dennis Lynch threatened a lawsuit against the newspaper on the executive’s behalf, claiming the report was in error. The final state verdict vindicated the Rockland County Times reporting and Lynch’s phantom threats were never heeded by the editorial board.

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