Friday, August 06, 2010

Good News - Tenant wins Water Service Case; Bad News - Governors Kill PULP

Good News
United States District Judge David N. Hurd of the Northern District of New York issued a decision on August 5, 2010 vindicating the due process and equal protection rights of a tenant user of municipal water service. The City of Auburn terminated and denied water service due to her landlord's unpaid bills for past service, and then condemned her home due to the lack of water: See City of Auburn Violated Tenant's Constitutional Rights in Denial and Termination of Water Service. The tenant was represented by PULP

Bad News: Governors Paterson and Cuomo Eliminate PULP
As we repeatedly reported, PULP funding and survival again was put in jeopardy in the 2010 - 2011 state fiscal year when none of Governor Paterson's proposed budget bills contained core funding for PULP. No Governor since Mario Cuomo included funding for PULP in his proposed state budgets.

PULP sought a legislative addition to the budget, as it had since 1995, and continued its operations without interruption even as the April 1 budget deadline passed. This meant exhausting its reserves and credit and running up bills to vendors and staff in expectation that as in the past 28 years, eventually the final budget passed by the legislature would contain the necessary appropriation.

The state budget, however, was passed in 2010 in sections attached by the Governor to short term funding extension bills, none of which contained PULP's core appropriation. Short of shutting down state operations, there was no real opportunity for the legislature to modify the weekly budget extension or other bills to include funding for PULP. See PULP Closure Imminent as Legislature Adjourns Without Appropriating Funds for PULP, PULP Network, July 2, 2010.

As a result, for the first time in 30 years PULP had no significant core funding source. See Larry Rulison, PULP's Funding Plug Pulled, Times Union, Aug. 5, 2010. "The Public Utility Law Project of New York, an Albany nonprofit group that has fought for decades for the state's utility customers -- especially the poor -- appears to be on the verge of closing."

Having exhausted its fund balance and credit in anticipation of an appropriation that never came, PULP became insolvent. laid off its staff, vacated its offices, and after more than thirty years, halted its operations. Its Executive Director is working on an uncompensated basis to fulfill obligations to clients in cases that PULP had undertaken for them, and on winding up administrative matters.

Efforts to restore funding in Governor Cuomo's budget for 2011 - 2012 were unavailing.

For further information on this situation, listen to Susan Arbetter's interviews of Assemblyman Kevin Cahill and PULP Executive Director Gerald Norlander on the August 6, 2010 WCNY Capitol Pressroom radio program. The discussion of PULP's financial crisis situation begins after minute 22 of the recording.

Mark Harrington, Group Fighting for Utility Customers Faces Shutdown,, September 15, 2010. "A watchdog group that has gone to bat for low-income utility customers around the state to prevent service shutdowns and push for lower rates is itself in danger of being shut down because of budget cuts. The Public Utility Law Project, a 29-year-old group based in Albany, saw its state funding vanish in April, and fail to be renewed in the recently passed 2010-11 budget."

Cathy Woodruff, In tough times, fight for consumers must go on, Albany Times Union, October 3, 2010. "Consider this: the Public Utility Law Project, a non-profit agency that represented low-income utility customers, closed its doors this year after state leaders failed to continue the funding that makes up the bulk of its $500,000 annual budget."

David Robinson, Residential phone book going way of dinosaur, Verizon’s White Pages reach the end of an era, Buffalo News, Oct. 15, 2010. "The Public Utility Law Project, an Albany-based advocacy group for low-income consumers that has since shut down because of the loss of state funding, opposed the elimination of the residential listings."

Nick Hirshon, Utility Fighter May Fade Out, Likely Doomed by Budget Cut, N.Y. Daily News, Dec. 7, 2010. "For three decades, the advocacy group - known as PULP - has provided free legal advice and representation to utility consumers who, in some cases, faced being tossed from their homes.But now PULP is facing its own battle for survival after the group, which relies almost entirely on state aid, was excluded from the governor's latest budget."

James Odato, Money Flows to Friends, Times Union, Dec. 20, 2010. "The governor still has $9 million in unused funds from that appropriation from a total of $30 million."

Sara Foss, State Cuts to Hit Hard, Schenectady Gazette, March 6, 2011. "Many nonprofit organizations and local agencies that depend on state funding are facing severe cuts. Some, like PULP, have seen once-reliable funding lines all but eliminated. In the most extreme cases, groups and agencies are contemplating the possibility of closure, drastic restructuring or the elimination of programs. And while they acknowledge that the state's fiscal crisis makes cuts necessary, they say they never expected to see a zero replace a budget line formerly at thousands, even millions, of dollars."

Craig Wolf, Impact of sale of Central Hudson Parent: Widespread but Uncertain, Poughkeepsie Journal, Feb. 27,2012: "The Public Utility Law Project advocated for homeowners and small businesses until its state budget item was decreased and eliminated under the David Paterson administration. The Consumer Protection Board was defunded also, and its functions transferred to the Department of State."

Thursday, August 05, 2010

City of Auburn Violated Tenant's Constitutional Rights in Denial and Termination of Water Service

Today U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd issued a decision and order granting the motion of an Auburn tenant for partial summary judgment declaring that her constitutional rights were violated when the City refused to provide water service to her without her paying her landlord's bill for past service, and for terminating service without timely and adequate notice, including notice of an opportunity for a hearing.

The tenant rented a house whose absentee owner had stopped paying the mortgage, tax, and water bills. When the owner didn't pay the water bills, service was shut off, and the City insisted that the tenant agree to pay the owner's bill as a condition of obtaining service. When she was unable to make installment payments on the owner's bill, service was shut off, the premises were posted as unsafe and unsanitary, and she was directed to move out. After the case was brought and a motion for a preliminary injunction was filed, the City relented and turned the water on, and the action now involves the remaining claim for damages. The court found that the City
  • violated plaintiff’s right to procedural due process by not providing adequate notice prior to terminating water service and by failing to provide a written explanation for refusing to accept an application for water service from her;
  • violated plaintiff’s right to substantive due process when it refused to provide water service unless she paid her landlord’s debt; and
  • violated plaintiff’s right to equal protection when it refused to provide water service in her name because of her landlord’s delinquent obligation.
The plaintiff is represented by PULP.

With rising water costs and more owner defaults in paying mortgage, tax, and water bills, similar problems have arisen across New York state. See Water Shutoff Issues Boil Over in Syracuse, PULP Network, Feb. 19, 2010. When municipal water service is shut off, premises are then condemned by the municipal code enforcement office as unsafe and unsanitary. In some cases this leads to displacement of tenants, hardship, disruption of family life and potential homelessness for those who cannot afford either the cost of their landlord's old water bills or the cost of renting and moving to other premises.

Municipalities and water authorities, unlike large private water companies, are not covered by the Home Energy Fair Practices Act, which prohibits denial of service based on unpaid bills of another person. For background, see