The Star-Ledger

On Tap: New Type Of Water Bill For Apartment-Dwellers

The Star-Ledger — Sunday, August 21, 2011

By Eliot Caroom / The Star-Ledger

Renters at new apartments around the state could see surprisingly higher — or lower — water bills in the next few years after the Board of Public Utilities approved a practice called "sub-metering" that will allow landlords of new buildings to individually bill apartments for water consumption.

The order also authorized sub-metering for existing apartment buildings that install new piping and water equipment.

It was a measure proposed by the New Jersey Apartment Association, something that its members had been considering since 2005, according to Nicholas Kikis, the group's director of regulatory affairs and research.

The state's Division of Rate Counsel opposed sub-metering, saying it could lead to billing problems for some tenants, which would then need to be resolved in the courts, not by the BPU, as customer disputes with utilities often are resolved now.

The board's staff said they still supported the proposal, and said the current system of water billing encourages waste.

"The overriding issue in my mind is it's a matter of fairness," said BPU Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso.

Fiordaliso said that billing tenants for the amount of water they use, instead of the average for the building, could also lead to less waste.

"We're talking about a concerted effort to conserve a very precious resource," Fiordaliso said.

Critics of the measure include Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, the executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action.

"Tenants do have the ability to make sure faucets are turned off really tightly and they're not taking two-hour showers," Salowe-Kaye said. "But some of the things, they have no control over ... they're not going to go out and buy faucet heads and toilet bowls. It's not their responsibility. A tenant is not supposed to fix their own pipe."

Salowe-Kaye also said she was worried that rent-controlled landlords would start sub-metering without lowering rent in buildings where rent previously covered the cost of water.

Not all the commissioners approved of the measure: Commissioner Jeanne Fox said she preferred a pilot program, so that if there are problems with the program, they could be worked out by the BPU rather than the alternative of tenants and landlords going to court to resolve disputes.

Fox made a motion to defer the matter to the next meeting, but couldn't find a second for it. After that failed, she abstained from the vote.

BPU President Lee Solomon said the courts would be a suitable venue for billing disputes.

"We understood (rate counsel director Stefanie Brand's) concerns," Solomon said. But, he added, "it's just like any other nonpayment of rent or rent issue."

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