Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Lien Demands Reignite Water Bill Controversy

By Lisa E. Crowley
BROCKTON—Thousands of Brockton residents have received notices in their quarterly water and sewer tax bills that demand owners pay their overdue bills or face liens on their property taxes, even if those bills are being disputed amidst a controversy surrounding the water department’s flawed metering and billing systems.
Many residents are incensed the city would make the move which they called another betrayal of promises made by public officials when it became clear the water and sewer department’s metering and billing systems had gone haywire.
“I have it on video—they said no one was going to get a lien, no one was going to lose their house and then they do this,” said Marianne Silva, one of about 6,500 water and sewer users in the city who received the lien threats with their first quarter bills Monday.
“They didn’t stick to what they said, but why should I be surprised—they haven’t through the whole thing,” Silva said.
Silva and numerous others, including Ayanna Yancey-Cato and Robert Ford have led a fight against the water and sewer bills--bills city officials have admitted are flawed and residents and officials alike are waiting to see the recommendations and data that will be provided by an independent audit firm, The Abrahams Group hired at a cost of $97,000 to sort out the issue.
Those recommendations are not expected to be complete until March or April and in the meantime because of the controversy surrounding meter reading and billing systems, many believed and felt they were promised the city would pull out the disputed bills and hold them aside instead of including the threat of a lien for non-payment.
Silva is one of the lucky ones. She only owes a disputed $500 after receiving an adjustment on a past bill for $2,400 that was reduced to $1,200-an adjustment that was made before Silva knew there was such a widespread problem.
She has fought the bill since the summer and has not paid the remaining $500 and was shocked to see the lien demand for the $500 in this quarter’s bill.
“I’m floored. I didn’t see this coming,” Silva said.
Silva is lucky her disputed bill is only $500.
Yancey-Cato's bill demands $17,000 in the next 30 days or the amount will be added to her property tax. Yancey-Cato initially had a bill for $100,000 that was reduced to $17,000—an amount that Yancey-Cato also contests.
Silva said a $17,000 adjustment on Yancey-Cato mortgage payment--possibly more than $1,000 a month—could very possibly cause Yancey-Cato to lose her house.
“If (Yancey-Cato) used the water and owes it that’s one thing, but we don’t know that—it’s disputed and now there’s a chance she can lose her house. I can’t believe they did this to people,” Silva said.
Mayor Linda Balzotti said the city had no choice under state law to send out the liens and affirms those who have disputed bills will be taken into consideration and disagrees with charges from some residents she has walked away from campaign promises to be on the side of the people.
“I’m not walking away from anyone,” Balzotti said. “When the audit is complete and in due course those that should be corrected will be corrected,” she said.
Balzotti said officials had hoped the audit would be completed by now, but because it is not, the city by state law is required to send out the demand notices.
She said the notices are not liens, but are attachments on people’s property taxes that can receive abatements from the treasurer’s department and do not result in a traditional lien in court.
Balzotti said there is an abatement process and people can contact the water department and treasurer’s office to set up payment plans and when the audit is completed, if it is found people have overpaid, they will be reimbursed.
The amount of liens--estimated at about 6,500 households or $8.9 million--Balzotti said, is not an unusual number and when the audit is completed those bills that need it will be corrected.
Balzotti said some of those 6,500 lien demands are to people who intentionally do not pay the bill for tax write-offs and other reasons, while others are disputed bills.
However, Ward 6 City Councilor Michelle DuBois, who has worked closely with residents since the water bill problem began over the summer, called the payment demand “insidious” and in many cases will change people’s mortgage payments and in some cases could push homeowners into foreclosure situations.
DuBois said even though the City Council over the last few weeks has reimbursed many residents for overpaid bills, a lot of others—especially those that have been vocal and public about their situations—have no confidence in the system or the city.
“They don’t want to tell people what these bills really are. They tell them there might be reimbursements and they can set up payment plans in the hope people will just go away,” DuBois said.
“They want them to sign payment plans, but once they sign that paper to set up a payment plan the bill is no longer in dispute,” she said.
DuBois said while Balzotti and Treasurer-Collector Martin Brophy have said the notices are not liens, homeowners don’t care what the notice is called because no matter how you look at it, the demand, if not paid, will increase their property taxes and therefore increases mortgage payments, often paid through escrow accounts with mortgage companies holding the loan.
“If you own the house it’s one thing, but if you are still paying a mortgage you’re mortgage company is going to adjust that monthly payment and not too many people can handle an increase of $1,000 a month. It’s going to balloon people’s payments and potentially send them into foreclosure,” DuBois said.
DuBois said she has asked several city officials and departments for a copy of the state law that requires the demand notices be sent and has not received one.
Why Balzotti did not require Water Commissioner Michael Thoreson or Treasurer-Collector Brophy to put a freeze on the lien demands—especially for residents with disputed bills--or why Thoreson or Brophy did not do it themselves as best management practices is something DuBois does not understand.
“Other cities and towns have had a moratorium or freeze on similar problems. Why didn’t we do that and then wait until the audit is completed and review these disputed bills and then issue the liens if we need to next year,” DuBois said.
She said many residents are fearful of approaching the water department and Commissioner Thoreson to dispute their bills and understands residents’ frustrations because she has gotten the run-around the same way residents have.
DuBois said she has contacted Thoreson and Treasurer-Collector Martin Brophy to help residents since Monday and was told by Thoreson it was Brophy’s job to issue the liens and when she talked to Brophy, he told her it was Thoreson’s job to send to the collector overdue bills for lien demands and Thoreson’s discretion to pull out those that are disputed. DuBois said she went back to Thoreson who said once the bills went to the collector they can’t come back, but Brophy told her Thoreson could request disputed bills be pulled. (Clarification: After the story posted DuBois further explained that contact with Thoreson was actually through his staff and via email and not phone calls.)
Neither Thoreson or Brophy could immediately be reached for comment.
“It’s all just a way to create a diversion and deflect people away from the real issue at hand—the lack of management, or mismanagement or even possibly corruption surrounding these bills,” DuBois said.
DuBois expects to meet with the leaders of the disputed bills this week in preparation for a larger meeting with everyone and anyone who has a dispute or problem with their water and sewer bills at the end of this month.
Silva echoed DuBois’s sentiment that many residents have little faith in city officials to resolve their bills and are in the process of exploring their legal options and await an audit they don’t expect will help them at all.
“There’s no logic when it comes to the water department,” Silva said.

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