When Ozone Park resident Annette Bonafede received a water bill last fall, the document that she normally paid little attention to made her stomach sink.
The paper before her said she owed about $850 for her water consumption from the end of May through the end of August of 2011 —approximately 10 times as much as she normally owes.
“We had no leak, I wasn’t taking showers all day long, so unless someone’s tapping into my water supply, this is impossible,” Bonafede said. “To me this feels like extortion. I’m paying for something I didn’t do.”
Originally, Bonafede, a writing tutor, said she was going to “suck it up and pay,” but then discovered she wasn’t the only one who had received a water bill far greater than anything they normally paid.
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) said about a dozen residents have called his office, complaining that their water bills too spiked for one quarter and then receded to the amount they normally paid.
A spokesman for the city Department of Environmental Protection said the increase is likely due to leaks — something that Addabbo and his constituents refuted.
“The DEP says there may have been a leak, but it’s too extraordinary that these bills go way above the average for these homeowners who’ve been in their homes for 15, 20 years,” Addabbo said. “We’re still trying to get answers from the DEP. These residents, they’re hard-working people — working parents or fixed income residents. Some couldn’t afford this outrageous bill.”
Farrell Sklerov, a DEP representative, said there could be a variety of reasons as to why the consumption spiked and noted that a “leak” could also entail a continuously running toilet or a hose left on.
And while residents noted that these increases came after the DEP installed new meters, Sklerov said there was no connection between the new units and the spike.
He said the city recently installed transmitters — devices that send data from the meter to the DEP — throughout the five boroughs. While doing this, Sklerov said officials also installed new meters at about half of their 835,000 customers’ houses.
“The new wireless technology gives us the benefit of looking in depth at customers’ water use and when it goes up and down and on what day that occurs,” Sklerov said. “That gives us an enormous amount of information, such as if there’s a problem with a customer’s account.”
Sklerov said the number of complaints the DEP has received has not gone up since the meters and transmitters were installed.
George Russo, an attorney who owns an office building on Lefferts Boulevard in Richmond Hill, said his bill for the March 1 to May 26, 2010 period was $4,022 — far more than the $700 or $800 he typically pays for his building that includes doctors and lawyers. The DEP said this increase occurred because Russo was being undercharged after the new meter was installed and the increase was meant to cover that difference, but Russo said his bills showed a spike in usage.
“I’m in here every day, and I was not aware of any leaks, any irregularity,” said Russo, president of the South Queens Boys and Girls Club and owner of Villa Russo, a catering hall located across the street from his office building.
Russo appealed the bill twice but was denied by the DEP both times.
“They claimed my use was in line with my history, which it certainly wasn’t,” Russo said. Despite Addabbo advocating on behalf of Russo, the DEP insisted he owed the money and Russo said he now has a lien sale warning because of this.
“I wasn’t sure if I should pay the bill, which is now, with penalties and interest, about $5,000,” Russo said. “The problem here is it’s the same agency that you have to appeal to that’s giving you the bill. There’s no independent adjudication of your issue. There’s no incentive to help you because they’re the judge and the jury. It seems like you can’t fight City Hall.”