Recent water rate increases highlight the systematic problems with our government. The DEP places blame on the state and federal governments while our City Council Member, Elizabeth Crowley, issues press releases filled with benign platitudes which does nothing to solve the problem.
Water rates are now a backdoor means of taxation: rates have increased on average annually over 7% since 1999. In 2010, an average single family home paid $723 in water bills a year. In 2014 that same family will pay $991. At the public hearing I attended earlier in May, the DEP made it clear that they plan to raise water rates into the indefinite future.
What is the DEP's explanation for water rate increases? The DEP blames these increases on unfunded mandates forced on New York City by the state and federal governments. From fiscal year 2002 to 2012, 65% ($15.2 billion) of DEP's capital budget was mandated. In other words, the DEP is saying it shouldn't be held responsible. The DEP was forced to borrow money it didn't have and now we are going to be paying the price for decades to come. In the expected 2014 budget, 40% ($1.6 billion) is dedicated to debt service. In addition 13% ($567 million) of the budget is held as a surplus, described as cash on hand. When pressed at the public hearing as to why cash on hand was written into the budget, it was explained by the Water Board treasurer that this money would be used to make the minimum payments on debt in the following year. Simply put, just in case the DEP doesn't take in enough money next year even after water rate increases, the DEP will have enough money left over to not default on its debt. This means in reality 53% of the DEPs budget is now concerned with just paying down the debt.
If this monstrous math was all there was to the story it would be enough for citizens to be angry. But this is not just a tale of bad government policy. Water rate increases reveal the systematic failures of our government. Let's look at the governmental structure, which leads to these back door taxes:
An unelected body decides the water rate. Unlike other forms of taxation, water rates are raised or lowered by people who will never face an election. They are appointed by the Mayor and therefore avoid public scrutiny most politicians would have to endure when raising taxes.
Responsibility for expensive projects is avoided. The DEP blames increases on state and federal mandates over which the DEP has no control. This is a fair enough argument, but it is also part of the problem. Responsibility is once again avoided by anyone. If the mandates were made public in an easy to read format, then citizens, the media and politicians could provide more effective oversight of the DEP.
We are in a perpetual re-run of bad government. First, the DEP testifies to the City Council about water rate increases. Next, Council Members, like CM Crowley, express "outrage;" public hearings are held; citizens complain and at the end of the day water rates go up. This process goes on year after year. The public is only brought into the discussion after the decision gets made. City Council Members can express their concern to the media, but nothing changes. It is guaranteed that without new leadership, this process will repeat itself next year.
This year we will have the opportunity to have a new government in City Hall. As a candidate for City Council, I have often spoken about the problems of never ending water rate and other tax increases on New Yorkers. Council Member Crowley issued a press release to the Times Newsweekly about water rates, saying the DEP "must find a better way to fund your operations. The City cannot continue to nickel and dime middle class families out of New York."
This press release sounds pleasant but it fails to adequately explain what is happening or describe any action taken by the Council Member to actually solve the problem. If elected to the City Council, I will work to get the DEP's budget in line, tell people the truth about water rates and work with other City Council Members and the new Mayor to halt water rate increases. New Yorkers should not be paying more money for the same product year after year. Only by changing our government this upcoming November, can we begin to change the direction of our City.
Craig Caruana is running for the NY City Council in the 30th district. For more information about Mr. Caruana please visit www.craigcaruana.com