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Queens Chronicle

Keep water rates right where they are

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Posted: Thursday, May 1, 2014 10:30 am | Updated: 11:39 am, Thu May 8, 2014.

Just about the last thing homeowners and small businessmen and women in Queens need is an increase in taxes, whether under that name or any other. But that’s exactly what they’re about to get hit with by the de Blasio administration, unless the mayor keeps a campaign promise he made to end the last mayor’s habit of increasing fees that are essentially taxes whatever they’re called.

The issue is water rates. The Water Board is planning to hike them 3.35 percent, and some officials are touting that as a good thing because it’s a far lower increase than the ones we’ve had to put up with for the last decade or so, when the cost of water — just about the most basic of human requirements — has been rising by leaps and bounds. Water and sewer rates combined are now 2.5 times what they were 10 years ago. But the simple fact is there’s no good reason the cost of water should be raised at all.

The problem is that de Blasio, if he allows the Water Board to impose an increase, would be doing it solely to pad city coffers, not to fund water delivery as the fee is designed to do. The city, you see, rents out to the Water Board those parts of the delivery system that were built before the board took over services. And what it was doing under former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and now is set to do under de Blasio, is charge far more rent than is necessary, so that the extra money can go into the city’s general fund.

While the city does of course face a fiscal crunch — as the economy continues to improve only slowly after the crisis of 2008, and all of the roughly 150 municipal unions continue to await new contracts in which they expect retroactive raises, and the cost of their benefits and pensions continues to rise, and residents continue to expect more and better services — the books should not be balanced even in part on the backs of small business people and homeowners, not to mention renters who end up paying for their landlords’ rising costs, however indirectly.

As Rich Hellenbrecht, president of the Queens Civic Congress and former chairman of CB 13, points out, homeowners have been seeing huge cost increases, including rising real estate taxes, heating fuel prices and insurance premiums. They can’t take any more — especially when a planned fee increase isn’t even necessary.

Leading the charge against any water rate increase is City Councilman Rory Lancman of Fresh Meadows, who says the 3.35 percent rate hike would bring in about $120 million more than the Water Board already collects, while the mayor’s excess rent plan totals $150 million. Take away the unnecessary rent, and the board could keep water rates right where they are and still come out $30 million ahead.

Lancman on Monday released statements from 15 civic and community leaders, led by Hellenbrecht, opposing the rate increase. And those are just from central and northeastern Queens. Imagine how many could be secured from the entire borough. It’s hard to imagine any leader of a civic group or homeowners association in the borough supporting a hike in water fees. Queens is especially hurt by such increases because it has so many single-family homes and small, independent businesses, as Lancman notes.

The public will get its chance to speak on the rate plan before it takes effect at mandatory hearings, though when those will be held is not yet known. We urge anyone who can to speak out against the hike and to remind the mayor that he campaigned against the very thing he is now set to do. If he can keep his promises on establishing universal prekindergarten, changing police practices and trying to ban carriage horses, surely he can keep his promise not to force water rate hikes by keeping the rent too damn high.

Welcome to the discussion.