ROTTERDAM, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Rotterdam’s new board has been searching for a solution ever since it came to light the previous town board had been working with DEC for more than two years to implement a multimillion-dollar water distribution plan that included switching all residents to paying by their usage, rather than the current flat rate.
“DEC approved the plan by the previous administration, and this new administration has reviewed that plan and come to the conclusion we have not taken any final position on it and will not until we focus on water conservation and education first,” replies Town Deputy Supervisor Jack Dodson.
Town leaders now turn to their local assemblyman, Angelo Santabarbara, looking for an exemption to DEC’s water meter rules. “He, as a state representative, actually has a lot of power that he can help us get around this, and we’re looking to clarify, too, the misconception that anyone on the board is trying to bring about water meters,” said Board Member Joe Mastroianni.
A new letter sent to Santabarbara Wednesday asks him to draft and fast-track legislation preventing the town from being forced to follow any state mandate switching residents to water meters. As NEWS10 has reported, DEC has spent the last nine years phasing all New York municipalities into its water metering program initiated in 2013 to better facilitate conservation. When asked if any legislation could change that regulation, a DEC representative responded:
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) water withdrawal regulation promulgated in 2013 requires that all new public water supply (PWS) systems install customer meters. Any enacted state legislation could potentially change state regulations. DEC does not comment on potential legislation.
However, if every community across New York is required to move to metering, should Rotterdam be the only exception? Town leaders said that metering has always been a sore subject among their neighbors.
“We have this unbelievable resource in our community that our taxpayers essentially believe is free in their minds, so when you start saying, ‘Hey, you’re going to meter,’ the natural inclination with any property owner is, ‘Well my bill is going to go up, then. And we’ll be taxed more,'” Dodson explained.
He admitted that, had the previous plan moved forward, the 10-year and three-phase plan would have included water conservation, a leak detection program, and metering, with water meters being the final stage. To pay for the entire operation, residents would have been charged around $75 in additional debt service.
Board members say this move for an exemption is also partially to correct the record set by Santabarbara. “He actually went on the radio and was telling everyone ‘Rotterdam’s town board is trying to force a water meter mandate on you,’ and that’s simply not the case,” said Mastroianni.
“I find it very disappointing because I think all branches of government should be able to work together. Assemblyman Santabarbara is our representative, so he should’ve reached out to us to find out clearly what our plan was,” said Town Supervisor Mollie Collins. “You’ll remember the issue with our sewer system earlier this year. We were able to reach out to the county for help with that. They found a way to reply with a solution. I see no reason why that communication couldn’t also happen at the state level.”
“If you’re that passionate about water meters and that there should not be water meters in the town and you’re our local boy here that’s our state representative, then you need to step up to the plate and act on it,” said Dodson. “If you’re going to rile up our constituents, then you better have something to back it up with, and backing that up would be you going to the Legislature with a bill that says we’re exempting Rotterdam from water meters.”
Santabarbara said Thursday afternoon that he hadn’t yet gotten the chance to review the town’s request. But already at first blush, he said he would not support any plan shifting the accountability from the town board. “They don’t have solutions, but we elected them to find solutions,” he said. “Hundreds of people signed my petition, and there’s a reason for that. We have seniors on fixed income, we have middle-class working families. There’s a reason we have a flat rate for water, because people can’t afford to pay for this. They got caught moving forward with this, and they’re saying they want someone else to fix the problem.”
“There are members of this town board that support this plan. They campaigned on this plan before they got elected. Now that they’re there, they’re backtracking because I had my own way of alerting the public. Now the only solution is to point fingers?” he argued. “That means they shouldn’t be there in the first place, and as I said, they should—if they can’t find a solution that we’re looking for—they should resign.”
However, the town board said they do have a plan. Their second request is to receive $28 million in state funding to repair and revamp the town’s water infrastructure—the same amount they estimate it would have truly cost to implement the old water distribution plan that included metering.
“How many times do we hear on the news that we have another water main break in Rotterdam? We need to assess the infrastructure that we have currently, which we know is antiquated, and invest in that infrastructure,” suggested Dodson. “Take the monies we would put towards any metering program and invest it in our distribution system first.”
Dodson, as a former water maintenance engineer, explained that if the DEC’s motivations for the metering regulation are conservation, then finding leaks and preventing water from going to waste should bring the town in compliance without using meters.
“We pump a lot of water. A lot of it goes to waste, and from a regulatory standpoint, they are looking at the town and saying, ‘Hey Rotterdam, you need to look at this resource and manage it better,’ he said. DEC has said to us they’d like to see us move up to 30-inch pipes, because we continue to use more water every year, and those pipes we have are becoming too small to deliver the water that we need to fill our water storage tanks. That’s becoming a problem, and in the next 10 years, we need to deal with that.”
He also admits that water meters may be inevitable down the road between DEC rulings and requirements that come with modernizing the town. However, he said that there are assumptions about meters that need to be addressed. Chief among them, he said, is the belief that any resident would have to pay for installing the equipment themselves.
“No metering program done in this day and age would require an individual resident or homeowner to pay for the meter installation in their home,” Dodson said. “It’s done as part of a capital improvement program within the municipality. There’s funding that we go after, and we’ve reached out to the Assemblyman because he would have input on that.”
Again, Santabarbara said a request for more money is not the solution he or his supporters had in mind. “If their only solution is to go back to the taxpayers, that’s not a solution for me,” he said. “To this day, it’s still unclear what’s going on. They haven’t scheduled a public hearing. They’ve had plenty of time to do it.”
Collins, Dodson, and Mastroianni said they encourage their residents to attend the next board meeting on Wednesday, April 13 with any questions. They have a meeting with DEC representatives the day before and they say they hope to gain from them a better understanding of their options.
“We just want to see for sure what was done with DEC in the past,” Collins explained. “Were any of the three elements that we’re talking about—education, conservation, and water leak detection—was that even brought up in the past? This might be something that’s welcomed by DEC, and we could move forward with those plans with their blessing.”
They also said that they hope Wednesday’s board meeting will be an opportunity to clear up any other misconceptions, including what residents actually pay for water. Property owners usually receive a bill in June for $75 for water and sewer debt service. However, there is a separate amount usually automatically included in January property taxes.
“When you get your property taxes in January, you’re not looking at each line item,” Collins explains. “So I would say yes, because they used to split the debt service from the operation and maintenance cost. It made people very unaware of what the real cost was.”
This operations and maintenance cost was not included in January 2022 taxes. A budget change made in December 2021 consolidated water and sewer debt service with operations and maintenance, to be billed together in June. Therefore, the board said residents should not be alarmed when they see a different charge, for example $157.89 for District 5 residents, because that’s the true “flat water rate” they’ve been paying all along.