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Niagara Falls residents blast Water Board over ‘crazy’ fee

NIAGARA FALLS - The Niagara Falls Water Board got an earful from some residents Thursday about an “availability” fee that property owners pay even if their water service is shut off.

The Water Board charges $20 per month to any property that has the potential of receiving water service but does not, meaning some shell out $240 a year even if not one drop of water runs through their water line.

David Bieksza, a 24th Street resident, told the board he was “mad as hell” for having to pay the fee for a commercial property he owns that has no water service.

“You gave the CEO raises on my back, on these people’s back. You gave raises out. What about me?” Bieksza said. “What about the people over here that are paying the water authority this availability rate? Why should we have to pay this? This is crazy.”

Bieksza, who has previously raised the issue with the board, was among seven people who raised the concern at Thursday’s meeting of the Water Board. That group included two Niagara County legislators, a former city councilwoman and a staff representative of Assemblyman John D. Ceretto.

County Legislator Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, who described the board’s fee as “like another tax,” noted that other utilities, like cable, phone or gas companies, don’t charge such a fee.

“I don’t understand where the Water Board gets off to charge people for availability when other utilities have the same service and they have to maintain their lines,” Virtuoso said.

One way to avoid this fee - without having the water service turned back on, which comes with its own fee - would be to hire a plumber to have the water line “capped,” or turned off, at the street. This could cost around $2,000, said Virtuoso, the recently retired acting director of the city’s Code Enforcement Department.

The fee, which is charged even if a property’s water meter has been removed, was $30 per quarter when it originated, which was at least as far back as 2006, said Water Board Executive Director Paul J. Drof.

The fee was doubled to $60 per quarter in the last several years, and the agency budgets for $150,000 in annual revenue from this fee, Drof said, which means about 625 properties account for the funding. Proceeds from the fee are put into the agency’s general water fund and the fee is the same for any residential or commercial property, regardless of size, Drof said.

Eliminating the fee was discussed during the agency’s budget deliberations, he said, noting that the funding derived from the fee would be roughly equivalent to a 1.25 percent increase in the water rate and which would be paid for by all ratepayers.

Board member Renae Kimble said the agency “should show good faith” on the issue and not “brush it off anymore.” She said the board should look to phase out the fee, perhaps in one or two years, looking to get replacement revenue from another source. She also said she wants to set up a meeting with some of the concerned residents in the next couple weeks and set up a working group to tackle the issue.

“They need to know we’re not a board that’s out of touch with reality,” Kimble said, “that we do have compassion for the residents here, that we care and that we’re willing to work with them and yet still provide good quality services.”