Sunday, January 30, 2011

Monday Meeting Final Countdown To Feb. 1 Water Dispute Deadline

By Lisa E. Crowley
BROCKTON—Residents embroiled in a dispute with the City of Brockton over their water bills will host an informational meeting Monday night, a day before Feb. 1—the deadline for residents to dispute their unpaid water bills and retain their right of appeal at the state Appellate Tax Board.
“It’s really an informational meeting, not an action meeting,” said Marianne Silvia, one of the meetings organizers and a member of Brockton United Voices, a grass-roots group that has organized to protect and inform residents of their rights over what some consider are outrageously high water bills.
Silvia said organizers will have copies of dispute resolution forms and official state forms that need to be filed before Feb. 1 for residents to assure future appeal rights.
“We will answer any questions residents have. We will help them fill out the proper forms, and even deliver them to the DPW and have them time-stamped,” Silvia said.
The meeting Monday, Jan. 31 officially begins at 7 p.m. However, organizers urge residents with problem bills to arrive at 6:30 so they can be helped with the forms necessary to dispute their water bills.
Silvia urged residents to bring a copy of their disputed bills because all of the information necessary to fill out the required forms is on the bill.
"Bring your bills," Silvia said.
The disputed bills issue began in the summer and has expanded to include numerous aspects of the city’s water billing metering systems, billing practices, management, and dispute resolution process, abatements and payment plans.
The city has hired an independent auditing firm to review water and sewer department practices and procedures, but recommendations are not expected until April.
In the meantime residents who want to fight water bills they believe are unusually too high and refuse to pay the disputed bill, must have an abatement hearing with the DPW by Tuesday, Feb. 1 to retain their right to an appeal with the state Appellate Tax Board.
Residents who have paid their water bills and still want to dispute their bill can contest the amount in small claims, district or superior court.
Many residents who refuse to pay their overdue water balances have said they won’t pay it because because they believe they are wrong. Highly publicized bills range from $4,500 to $12,000 to $17,000—the $17,000 bill was originally $100,000 until it was reduced by the DPW.
Monday night’s meeting is expected to include numerous speakers: some who will tell their personal stories, and others who will provide information about the process.
Mayor Linda Balzotti, who has been invited to the meeting, said during a telephone interview late last week that she was not sure her schedule would allow her to attend the meeting. Balzotti said the city’s Chief Financial Officer John Condon will attend and a staff member from the city’s legal office will attend.
DPW Director Michael Thoreson and Water Systems Manager Brian Creedon have been invited to the meeting, but Balzotti said she does not expect either to attend.
In a related matter, city CFO John Condon said each of the seven city councilors and Councilor-at-large Thomas Brophy will each pick one resident to meet with representatives of The Abrahams Group--the company hired to conduct the water and sewer department audit.
Two weeks ago Condon—who is on a committee overseeing the water and sewer audit—said officials were working with Abrahams Group to allow the 8 resident interviews and time for city councilors to also meet with auditors.
“We haven’t finalized the contractual language, but it looks like we can make it work,” Condon said.
He said each city councilor and Brophy will be allowed to pick one resident to meet with auditors.
Condon said a lottery wasn’t used because some city councilors have not received complaints over the water bill issue and the most extreme cases are the ones likely to be reviewed.
“My guess is they will be the ones who have been most vocal and public,” Condon said.
He couldn’t be sure, Condon said, but guessed if city councilors do not have a resident’s name to put forward they will seek Ward 6 Councilor Michelle DuBois—whose ward has the most problems and who has supported residents in their efforts, including organizing Monday’s meeting with residents and Councilor-at-large Jass Stewart.
Condon said city councilors will meet with auditors separately five times, beginning Tuesday, Feb. 8.
He said four teams of two city councilors will meet with auditors followed by one team of three.
Condon said meetings with city councilors were separated to make sure quorum rules were not violated and to limit the number of hours the auditing firm would have to charge for the interviews.

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