Ratepayers, lawmakers slam NY American Water sale in public hearing

Mark Harrington for Newsday

November 10, 2020

Originally published in Newsday on November 10, 2020.

Ratepayers and elected officials on Tuesday took a sledgehammer to the proposed sale of New York American Water to Liberty Utilities, demanding instead that the state agency that must approve the sale work to facilitate public water for the embattled Nassau system.

Two weeks after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced legislation that would require the state Department of Public Service study the prospect of municipalizing the system, customers in a virtual public hearing by the Public Service Commission overwhelmingly called on the agency to reject the $607 million sale.

New York American Water, the subject of withering ratepayer criticism and several investigations into rate-case irregularities and soaring water bills, proposed the sale to Canadian Liberty Utilities last year. Tuesday’s hearing was one of eight that give the public the chance to weigh in on the sale, and weigh in they did.

"New York American Water is the absolute worst and Liberty Utilities will be no better," said Agatha Nadel, a Glen Head ratepayer and leader of the North Shore Concerned Citizens, an opposition group. "We are demanding affordable public water once and for all."

She was one of 11 speakers, including watchdogs, state lawmakers and ratepayers who spoke in vociferous opposition to the sale, while urging the PSC to find a path to make the water system, which spans from Lynbrook to Sea Cliff in Nassau County, public. Outside the companies, only a single speaker, a union rep for utility workers, spoke in favor of the sale. Shawn Garvey, a national representative for the Utility Workers Union of America, said the sale was "in the best interest of our members."

Barbara Berlin of Glen Head, citing the "outlandish price" Liberty plans to pay for the Nassau and upstate assets for New York American Water, charged the sale was "really all about greed and profit."

She cited the nearly 600% premium she pays for New York American Water compared with her neighbors in the Jericho Water District, among other factors.

Assemb. Edward Ra (R-Franklin Square) pointed to "dramatic" rate increases, a "lack of transparency" and "material misrepresentations" in rate proceedings in calling for the sale to be rejected. "It has become clear that the only path forward is municipal water," Ra said, echoing others.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), said the nearly 1,000 complaints that his office has received about New York American Water far exceed those on any other matter. "Nothing comes close," he said, citing customer frustration about "being gouged by their rates" and "it’s not even as if the water is better — in many cases it’s brown." Kaminsky said he supports the governor’s plan to examine a possible public takeover.

Liberty is "proud of the way we conduct our business," said Jody McEachran, the company's senior director for regulatory strategy. In a presentation he vowed "customer rates will not be impacted by the purchase price or any costs of the transaction." He also promised a freeze in base rates until April 2023, and further reduction based on a planned recapitalization of long-term debt at a lower cost.