When I was a little kid, I had friends from school over to work on some project, and one girl asked me for a glass of water. “Sure,” I said, “just leave some change on the table, because we have to pay for water now.” It was a joke based in fact: a water meter had recently been installed in our house, which happened to most New Yorkers in the 80s—to their consternation and bemusement. “New Yorkers grew up believing that water was unlimited, and free,” the Times reported in 2005. “But the fiscal crisis of the 1970’s changed that perception. When officials realized that the water could stop running if the city went bankrupt, the system was made self-supporting, relying on fees.”
And so here we are, decades later, paying more and more for water than ever before. The city is mulling another water-rate hike, the Bensonhurst Bean reports; that’s on top of the one last year, and the one scheduled for this summer. Under Bloomberg, water rates (adjusted for inflation) have risen more than 100 percent, to $3.58 by 2014 from $1.76 in 2002 (in 2013 dollars). In comparison, rates under Giuliani’s eight-year mayoralty rose 7 percent (adjusting for inflation).
Water-rate hikes have been criticized as a backdoor tax; Bloomberg can say he didn’t raise taxes on city residents while making them pay “hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars more a year,” Bensonhurst Bean reports, “and your City Council rep doesn’t even get a vote on it,” while the revenues are put toward water-infrastructure costs as well as other parts of the budget. (Upward of a quarter of New Yorkers just don’t pay their water bills.) Bloomberg’s New York has been not one of higher progressive taxes but of higher fees: in which small restaurants are hit with big fines, in which bicyclists are targeted for tickets.
It’s as such that the mayor helps fill city coffers while protecting the One Percent from paying its share, because a “water tax” is a regressive tax. New York’s rich have reason to use more water for personal use, but not proportionate to their wealth; some outerborough dwellers may have lawns that require watering, I guess, but by and large the city’s residents, rich and poor, are using water to drink, cook, shower, and launder. Landlords can just pass higher rates onto their tenants.
It’s like CUNY tuition or bridge tolls: once you start paying the city for something, they’ll never stop raising the price, even when the city is relatively financially stable.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart