Gov. Kathy Hochul late last month vetoed a bill that would have required the state to collect and publicly report on the number of New Yorkers struggling to pay for utilities, including those behind on their water bills—which supporters say is essential to planning government relief programs to address those debts. 

Jeanmarie Evelly

While most of the water in New York City apartment buildings is perfectly potable, older plumbing can leach toxins, especially lead, during the final stretch from street to sink.

As winter approaches in New York City, residents are expected to see their energy bills soar—the result of rising inflation and natural gas costs worsened by the ongoing war in Ukraine.

That’s likely to add to the amount of people already behind on their utility bills, a number that ballooned during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and which has remained stubbornly high, even after the state’s moratorium on utility shut-offs expired at the end of last year. A report this summer from the state comptroller’s office found some 1.2 residential customers across the state owed $1.8 billion on their gas and electric bills alone as of March 2022. The state said in June that total utility arrears had surpassed $2.3 billion.

But the true extent of the New York’s utility crisis, advocates say, is much larger—but also harder to discern. The state doesn’t widely or uniformly collect data on debt and shut-offs associated with other utility services, including water (often provided by local municipalities). Gov. Kathy Hochul late last month vetoed a bill that would have required the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) to collect and publicly report on the number of New Yorkers struggling to pay for such utilities, which supporters say is essential to planning government relief programs to address those arrears.

“You can’t repair a problem if you can’t measure it,” said Eric Weltman, a senior organizer with the environmental group Food and Water Watch, who said the legislation would’ve had “far reaching implications for New Yorkers.”

“Data isn’t the sexiest of topics, that’s for sure,” he added. “But more data will absolutely equip us to more effectively advocate for access to basic human needs.”

The bill, which was passed by lawmakers at the end of the last legislative session in June, would have required water, gas, and electric utility providers across the state to report data to the PSC on the number of customers in debt, how many have received disconnection notices, how many had their service cut off for nonpayment and other information related to affordability, which the PSC would then be required to produce public reports on. Neighboring New Jersey passed a similar measure this fall.

Hochul recently vetoed the bill alongside more than two dozen others that would have similarly required the state to produce reports or studies, citing the “fiscal impact” required to implement them. “These unbudgeted costs would create significant staffing and other programmatic burdens on state agencies,” the governor said in a statement.

But State Sen. Kevin Parker, who sponsored the utility legislation, said he was disappointed by Hochul’s decision to veto the bill, which had bipartisan support and passed in June with a vote of 58 lawmakers in favor and just 10 against it.

“This is not a study for study’s sake,” he said, saying he was inspired to draft the legislation after seeing how many residents were struggling to keep up with home utility costs during COVID, but found it was “actually difficult to have an exact number on arrears,” which he estimates could surpass $3 billion statewide when including debts for water, telephone and broadband.

While the state allocated $557 million this year to help low-income New Yorkers pay off electric and natural gas utility bills, that funding is “a partial down payment on what needs to be done in terms of helping people who are economically distressed to no fault of their own,” Parker said.

“I believe there are real federal funds that we can use [to address that], but I think that it’s difficult to in fact craft a program that goes after those federal funds in a meaningful way without a clear understanding of how much money, and who are the people, and who are the utilities who need it,” he added.

The state’s existing utility debt relief program, which is open to eligible low-income applicants through the end of the year, doesn’t apply to those behind on their water bills, an area that advocates say has long lacked transparency around customer debts. While private gas and electric utility providers are regulated by the PSC, the state’s patchwork of public water systems—which account for the vast majority of water service across New York—are not required to publicly report arrears data.

“We have no idea what the scale and the extent of the water affordability crisis is out there,” said Robert Hayes, director of clean water with the organization Environmental Advocates NY.

While gas and electric utility companies are typically hesitant about shutting off customers’ service for nonpayment, especially during cold weather, advocates who’ve been tracking the issue say there have been cases of water systems cutting off customers who owe in at least two municipalities in upstate New York.

In New York City, homeowners who fall behind on their water bills can end up with liens against their property, debts which have been known to disproportionately impact low-income residents and New Yorkers of color (the bill vetoed by Hochul would have required water systems to also report data on debts resulting in liens).

“These are the most vulnerable New Yorkers that can’t pay their water bills,” Hayes said. “And they’re the ones that the state needs to step in and say, ‘All right, we’re going to learn about this problem and start taking steps to address it.’”

He and other advocates are hoping to see the transparency bill gain traction again in 2023. Since Hochul cited the associated costs of the reporting it would entail as the reason for her opposition, they’re urging her to include the legislation in her executive budget proposal in the new year—along with the funding needed to make it a reality.

“Water was unaffordable for many people before the pandemic. The pandemic made it worse,” Hayes said. “This problem isn’t going away now that the immediate kind of COVID crisis has subsided. We can’t just kind of go back to square one on this issue.”