Audits of municipal water systems estimate local governments are losing millions of dollars in revenue due to water loss, inaccurate meters or improper billing, according to a report issued today by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. The report analyzed the results of audits conducted by DiNapoli's office of 161 local government and seven public authority water systems from January 2012 through May 2017.
"Water leaks, broken pipes and aging infrastructure are costing local governments millions of dollars annually," said DiNapoli. "Across New York, my audits have revealed infrastructure problems, poor budget practices and a lack of long-term planning are straining municipal finances and increasing costs for taxpayers. If these problems aren't addressed, the issues plaguing water systems will only get worse."
Of the audits, 22 pointed to water loss as an issue and estimated that fixes could yield as much as $2.2 million in savings.
More often than not, water loss is caused by leaks from broken or aging underground pipes. In some cases, however, auditors found inaccurate meters or improper billing to be the problem. As a result, some customers are paying too much and others too little. Efficient operations would require that officials upgrade meters or improve the accuracy of the billing process.
Auditors also found that several local governments had insufficient revenues to operate their water systems, which was aggravated by incorrect billing. As with water loss, these practices negatively affected water system operating budgets and overall municipal finances. During the five-year period, a review of 16 municipalities with revenue or billing deficiencies revealed that corrective action could increase revenues by more than $400,000.
DiNapoli's report also noted:
- Several municipalities were routinely transferring money into the water fund from other funds, which continued to mask revenue shortfalls;
- Water fund surpluses were being improperly used to subsidize general operating costs for municipalities;
- The lack of adequate monitoring of system finances left local officials unaware of ongoing deficits and the dangers of depleting fund balances; and
- Some local officials had no strategies to eliminate long-term deficits, improve infrastructure or replace aging equipment, or spend down significant surpluses.
The Comptroller's office has expanded its audit focus to include issues regarding local water supplies. Recently, DiNapoli's staff conducted an audit of a county's oversight of water testing, identifying opportunities for improvement. In addition, upcoming audits are planned that will examine the cybersecurity of computer-based systems used to monitor, modify, regulate or manage municipal water facilities. In the wake of recent cyberattacks that have disrupted a number of local governments, including a municipal-owned dam in the Hudson Valley, these systems have come to the forefront as a critical risk area.
The U.S. House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee recently advanced a bill that would reauthorize the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which provides grants for water systems. This financial assistance helps local governments address critical drinking water issues, including protecting water quality, repairing infrastructure, and modernizing water meters.
This report is the second in a series examining various aspects of municipal water systems, including infrastructure, finances and organization. The first report, Drinking Water Systems in New York: The Challenges of Aging Infrastructure, was issued in February 2017. To view the report, visit: http://www.osc.state.ny.us/localgov/pubs/research/municipal-water-systems.pdf
For access to state and local government spending, public authority financial data and information on 140,000 state contracts, visit Open Book New York. The easy-to-use website was created to promote transparency in government and provide taxpayers with better access to financial data.