It’s not just the Biblical rainstorms of yesterday, and, it seems, much of this summer, that have many residents of Queens and the other boroughs feeling soaked — it’s also their water bills. And for many, it’s not just the routine rate hikes that have ranged from 5 to 15 percent for nine of the past 10 years. There are people out there getting socked with quarterly bills that are sometimes double, triple, or even 10 times as much as what they had been paying.
The Department of Environmental Protection insists all the unexplained spikes are due to factors like leaks. But many home and business owners aren’t buying it, and neither is Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. They blame the automated meter readers the DEP has been replacing old-fashioned meters with. Last Thursday de Blasio held a hearing at his Manhattan office into the spikes in billing, and several Queens residents and business owners were among those testifying.
One of those who spoke is Anthony Castorina, owner of The Alps Provision Co. in Astoria, a dried sausage manufacturer and wholesaler. Castorina saw his water bill jump from a little under $2,000 a quarter to nearly $20,000 after the new meter reader was installed.
If unresolved, the spike just may be one of the things that drives Castorina to relocate to New Jersey with many, but not all, of his 23 full-time employees. The Whitestone resident plans to expand and hire maybe 15 more people, but he just might do it in the Garden State because, he says, “New York is ridiculous now” when it comes to the cost of doing business —and a water bill that jumps 1,000 percent in one quarter is one more straw on the camel’s back.
When Castorina first got a bill spike, he said, he called the DEP and the agency told him to get a plumber to search for problems like leaks. “He came and checked, and no leaks,” Castorina said.
He didn’t find the agency to be all that helpful either, a complaint de Blasio said is just as common as complaints about sudden spikes in recorded water usage.
“It’s hard to make an argument with the DEP,” Castorina said. “There’s a form, but you don’t know how to get to it.”
Seeing de Blasio speak on television about his upcoming hearing, Castorina called his staff for help, and they helped him find the DEP’s complaint form. After that was filed, the agency said it would send someone out to take a look, on July 30, but no one ever came, he said. Next Castorina told his story at the hearing, which was attended by an Environmental Protection official and a pair each of city and state lawmakers, including Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) and Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck).
“The DEP took my information at the hearing, but I still haven’t heard anything,” Castorina said. He added that he has paid the bills, since the DEP can put liens on properties where they go unpaid.
During the hearing, the DEP insisted that of all the thousands of automated meters it’s installed, none have any technical problems, a contention Castorina said drew laughter from some in the crowd, including at least one elected official.
It’s the agency’s insistence that none of the usage spikes are incorrect, and the way it allegedly treats complainants like Castorina that de Blasio is seeking to address through three bills his office is drawing up. As the public advocate, de Blasio can introduce legislation in the City Council just like any of its regular members.
“The DEP isn’t even admitting there’s a problem,” de Blasio, who is a Democratic candidate for mayor next year, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Their motto could be ‘The customer is always wrong’ at this point. Some of these cases are outrageous. Two people from two boroughs got bills showing 1,000 gallons were used overnight; that’s impossible. The DEP is simply not willing to work with the consumer.”
To change that, de Blasio’s three bills would:
• simplify water bills so customers can more clearly see when spikes in usage are recorded and so the appeals process is more clear;
• force the DEP to do its own inspections of plumbing at no cost when people experience sudden cost increases of more than 100 percent, rather than making customers hire private contractors; and
• bar the agency from placing liens on properties when people don’t immediately pay “extraordinary, unusual or disputed charges.”
Asked how much it might cost the city to always do its own inspections, de Blasio said he hadn’t come up with a figure yet, but that the agency charges $180 to do the job now and “the quicker we resolve these bills, the quicker the revenue comes into the city.”
Asked how the city could force payment of legitimate bills without the power to place liens, he said, “I’m not looking to take that power away from the city, I just don’t want it to be used so readily when there is a true dispute.”
De Blasio said his office had received roughly 500 complaints about water bill spikes before the hearing, 158 of them from Queens —more than any borough other than Brooklyn, which yielded 192.
The public advocate encourages anyone else whose water bill has jumped unexplainably to contact his office at (212) 669-7250 or via email at email@example.com.
A video of the hearing has been posted at youtu.be/tn4vGoEZ7mQ.