United Water rate hike elicits strong responses from officials, activists

BY MICHAEL RICONDA

Haverstraw – United Water’s recent decision to apply for a surcharge with the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) before its proposed Haverstraw desalination project has even been approved has elicited strong reactions from local organizations and elected officials for a move many regard to be premature.

United Water New York issued a press release on June 14 explaining the surcharge, which would go into effect on August 1, would help satisfy the $56.8 million in costs the company expects to incur through the end of July. According to the UWNY, the $4.96 average monthly surcharge would proactively address desalination-related expenses including engineering, design, pilot plant testing and permits and legal matters.

In effect, Rockland residents would be subject to an 8.08 percent per year average rate increase. Though the rate hike seems to treat the proposed plant’s approval as a relative certainty, United Water is still waiting for a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) from the State Department of Environmental Conservation and may face an issues conference prior to construction.

The request has already been criticized by local elected officials and activists wary of both the rate increase and what many perceive as UWNY’s inappropriately aggressive drive to finalize the plans. Rockland Water Coalition member George Potanovic explained UWNY had not only unfairly asked for Rockland taxpayers to subsidize the project, but has not been sufficiently transparent regarding continually changing costs and questions of need for the plant.

“My understanding is that they were not supposed to pass those costs on to the ratepayer until the project was completed,” Potanovic said. “They have not been forthcoming regarding the real costs of this project.”

Potanovic went on to point out that United Water’s 2010 rate order does permit it to levy a surcharge until significant construction has begun on the project.

State Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski joined in opposition, announcing in a recent statement that he was “totally opposed” to the request, which he characterized as dismissive of continued calls for discussion.

“It is inappropriate for United Water to seek approval for funds to build the desalination plant when the approval process has not yet concluded, especially when there has been a widespread push for an issues conference,” Zebrowski iterated.

Zebrowski also explained construction funds should come from shareholders rather than county residents and promised to contact the PSC to express concern over the surcharge.

In county government, County Legislator Alden Wolfe pledged to file an application with the PSC for “party status” to the United Water’s surcharge petition, which would allow him to submit comments and testimony and participate in events connected to the petition, including hearings and conferences.

Like Zebrowski, Wolfe expressed a critical stance toward the surcharge, calling it “premature” and arguing United Water is mischaracterizing concerns as purposeful obstruction.

“It’s a shame that United Water views advocacy as ‘political machination,’” Wolfe said in a Tuesday press release. “Party status would give me another platform to protect and advocate for the best interests of United Water ratepayers, as well as address the environmental concerns related to the project.”

The early introduction of the surcharge is part and parcel to UWNY’s efforts to streamline the project. In a press release last week, United Water New York Vice President and General Manager Michael Pointing explained the desalination proposal was not only safe and effective but time-sensitive.

Pointing referred to the PSC’s 2006 order that the utility find an additional water source to meet county needs. Hence, he argued that given UWNY’s completed safety studies, an issues conference would only inhibit progress.

“Further delays, whether related to releasing the FEIS or holding an issues conference, would potentially add millions of dollars to the project cost and customer water bills,” Pointing argued in an earlier press release. “These delays are unnecessary and will not make the water cleaner or more plentiful. The urgent need for water, a thoroughly vetted project, and delay-related costs for our customers, sum up why it is imperative for the DEC to issue its FEIS.”

UWNY also announced it would apply for a rate case to recover funds from capital investments and operating cost increases since the last rate increase in 2010.