"The best surprise is no surprise at all," says Village of Mamaroneck resident Donald Roach, who received very bad news last week.
As of May 1, water rates in the Village of Mamaroneck were increased by 75 percent, but reality didn't hit until very recently. Like Roach, residents opening their latest statements are not happy with the new rates.
Roach says he was caught completely off guard by the $490 water bill he received last week. His last quarterly bill was $120. He rarely attends public meetings, but for Monday's special Board of Trustees gathering, Roach arrived early, intent on finding out why his water costs had skyrocketed.
After brief conversation related to outstanding invoices, discussion quickly turned to the water increases, which Mayor Rosenblum called "very high, shockingly so."
Though only five people were in the court room audience, Rosenblum said he had received quite a few calls, and expected residents would watch rebroadcasts of the meeting. He then turned the floor over to Westchester Joint Water Works Manager Anthony Conetta, who had the onerous task of explaining the rate hike approved by the village.
When it comes to water, it boils down to this: Rates for all member towns of WJWW have gone up, but rates for the Village of Mamaroneck went up much higher because previous years' adjustments have not kept pace with the rising cost of purchasing water, according to Conetta.
The average bill for Mamaroneck residents has been about $55 per month. For United Water Westchester customers, Conetta said, that number is $105. Using the same average 7,500 gallons per household each month, Conetta said residents of Mount Pleasant pay $85. In Ossining, the tab is $97.
According to Conetta, village rate increases have not kept pace with rising costs. There was a 4 percent increase last year and a 17 percent increase the year before, but the increased cost for WJWW was much higher at 21 percent.
This year, New York City increased the price of its water 24 percent, continuing a trend of rising rates. Last year's rate increase was 2 percent and the prior year's was 13 percent. According to David Birdsall, WJWW business director, the cost of New York City water has tripled since 2000.
So what does that have to do with the Village of Mamaroneck? WJWW purchases 100 percent of its water from New York City.
Conetta explained that besides the 24 percent increase in the cost of New York water, the WJWW has also had to deal with other rising expenses, such as its own utilities, insurance and water treatment chemicals. The largest hit, however, has been a 200 percent increase in the cost of equipment and maintenance, including modernization and enhanced security requirements. Even after reducing labor costs by 13 percent, Conetta said he found the prospect of a hefty rate increase was unavoidable.
According to the presentation, village residents are fortunate they receive their water through not-for-profit WJWW rather than a privately owned utility. Increases in surrounding areas this year include: 54 percent for United Water (New Rochelle), 35 percent for United Water Westchester (Rye, Rye Brook and Port Chester), 20 percent for the Village of Larchmont and 24 percent for United Water NY (Rockland County).
WJWW provides water service for five municipalities: the Village of Mamaroneck, the Town of Mamaroneck, the Village and Town of Harrison, and portions of New Rochelle and Rye. Each municipality determines its own rate with guidance from WJWW.
This year's rates for all WJWW member towns have increased. As of June 1, rates in the Town of Mamaroneck and New Rochelle increased 18 percent. As of April 1, rates in Harrison increased 28 percent. For residents of the Village of Mamaroneck and a section of Rye, as of May 1, the water rate increased 75 percent.
Roach complained to the Board of Trustees and the WJWW that it was not fair how the increases were being handled.
"You can't make up the entire shortfall in one fell swoop," he argued. "This bill I got is $290 more than the highest one I've ever received."
"Why couldn't the increases be rolled out in stages?" Roach asked.
Also at issue was the lack of communication about the upcoming cost. Roach and another resident, who preferred to be unnamed, were "annoyed" that they did not receive prior notice of the rate hike with their bills.
Greg Sullivan, Republican candidate for the Board of Trustees, expressed concern that the WJWW customer service representatives did not seem well-prepared to field questions last week about the increase. Conetta responded that he has provided the staff with information that will help them respond to concern from callers.
Trustee John Hofstetter said he saw his statement after returning from vacation and anticipated that more residents may have concerns as they discover their bills. Trustee Louis Santoro asked whether it would be feasible to do a reverse 911 call informing residents about the rate increase or a special mailing, but was informed it would be too expensive.
Instead, Trustee Toni Ryan and Rosenblum asked Conetta to return and answer questions at the September 13th Board of Trustees meeting.
After the meeting, Roach and another resident said they accepted the facts of Conetta's presentation, but weren't satisfied.
"It's not really the WJWW's fault," said the unnamed resident. "It's the village board's fault." Why hadn't this board and previous administrations made reasonable increases? Why didn't residents get more advance notice? And why did the increase have to come all at once?
Mary Vozza, another Republican candidate for the Board of Trustees, was not satisfied by what she heard either. She had heard about the special meeting by word of mouth and promised she would be back for the next one.
To read Mayor Rosenblum's explanation of the water rates increase, see our pdf section.