After balking at the Westchester Joint Water Works' (WJWW) proposal to increase Harrison's water rate 17 percent this summer, the Town Board ultimately approved the cost increase by a slim 3 - 2 margin.
The company that provides water to Harrison and several surrounding municipalities proposed the rate increase Thursday night, blaming an increase in the cost of buying water from New York City as the biggest reason for the price hike. Buying water from New York City went up an additional 9.8 percent starting July 1, meaning the company needed to place the burden on local customers to avoid building debt.
Although the town isn't forced to accept the price rate increase, voting it down would sink the WJWW into debt because New York City's water prices cannot be voted down. Buying water from New York City and selling it to local customers at last year's rate would cost the water company thousands of dollars a day, said Anthony Conetta, manager of the WJWW.
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But it was costs outside of New York City's water rates that caught the ire of Harrison's Town Board Thursday. The WJWW asked the town to subsidize a more than 10 percent increase in its local costs in 2012-13 to help pay down debt and pay for a new radar system that measures water levels and finds leaks and other issues, said Conetta.
The cost of the new water radar system—called a SCADA system—left the board on the brink of voting down the new rate. Conetta said the WJWW board elected to include the system in its operating budget, as opposed to its capital budget, meaning the system will cost more in the short term. Conetta estimated the system adds about $350,000 to the budget this year.
"I personally think there has been a lack of accountability here," said Harrison Councilman Joseph Cannella (R), who ultimately voted against the rate hike.
"It's just not happening," quipped Councilman Stephen Malfitano (R), who also voted no.
Both councilmen said the rate increase alone wasn't the problem; it was the WJWW's decision to add to its operating budget without asking local municipalities, whose constituents will ultimately pay the cost.
Conetta countered that the SCADA system was a necessary cost, and that paired with increases in the price of electricity, oil and chemicals for the water made the rate increase unavoidable. The WJWW has also been paying down debt since 2010 because rate increases placed on customers lagged behind the growing price the WJWW was paying New York City.
At one point in 2010 the Westchester Joint Waterworks was in more than $1 million debt. That debt has shrunk to just over $300,000 since, as the price of water in Harrison in 2011 and in 2010. Surrounding communities also faced sharp rate increases, customers in the Village of Mamaroneck saw their rates jump 75 percent in 2010 as the WJWW tried to pay down its debt.
Had the board voted down the proposed rate increase, Conetta said that debt would begin to build again almost immediately.
Although the WJWW is a separate entity from local government, supervisors from each of the municipalities that use its services are members of a board that monitor the company's actions. Conetta countered that Harrison has had representation during operating decisions within the WJWW.
Councilman Fred Sciliano (R) also noted that the issues with the WJWW date back more than a decade, and that it might be unfair to place all of the blame on the company's current leadership.
"The previous managers of this water system wasted millions of dollars because of ego," Sciliano said. "That's when the money was wasted."
Sciliano, as well as Mayor/Supervisor Ron Belmont (R) and Councilwoman Marlane Amelio (R) made up the three votes that approved the rate increase.
Before the vote was taken Cannella asked for a more detailed look at the operating budget, voicing his concern over the 54.5 percent hike in the price of water in three years. Conetta also mentioned that the WJWW will need to make capital improvements to several water tanks in Harrison while trying to pay back its remaining debt over the next few years.
"I'm terrified about where our water rates are going to end up at the end of all of this," Cannella said. "It's a frightening concept."
With the new rate increase approved, Conetta said the WJWW will be checking meters over the next few days, meaning the rates will go up within the next week or two. According to WJWW estimates, the 17 percent increase will cost the average Harrison home an additional $86.39 per year.