Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Inspector General Opens Investigation of Brockton Water Bills

Note: Story originally posted Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010
Story by Lisa E. Crowley
Brockton Post
BROCKTON—Brockton residents who believe their water bills are more than just inaccurate or caused by mechanical malfunctions have filed complaints with the state Inspector General’s Office and have been contacted by the agency for documents related to their bills.
Bob Ford, a 66-year-old-retiree who has been at odds with the city water department since he received a bill in February for $11,700, said he was contacted last week by Brendan McCabe, a representative with the Inspector General’s Office requesting water bills, consumption reports and other documents related to water bills that residents have said are disproportionate with how much water they could have used.
"They think we are all just a bunch of sheep--whatever the city says we'll do," Ford said.
Ford said, so far, he and two others have submitted documentation toward an investigation of the billing problem and as word spreads to other residents that the agency is reviewing the problems, expects other homeowners to follow suit.
“The IG's Office is particularly interested in the Jan. 19 actual bill,” Ford said.
Josh Giles, a spokesman for the IG’s office, said “standard procedure is we can neither confirm or deny if there is an investigation.”
Giles confirmed McCabe is an employee of the IG’s Office.
The mission of the IG’s office, according to the agency’s Website is to “prevent and detect fraud, waste and abuse in government,” and includes operational and management reviews.
The investigation by the IG’s office is the latest move by Brockton residents who are fighting widespread discrepancies in water bills over the last few months--or for some over many years.
Ford said he believes, in his case, the IG’s Office is as interested as he himself is to learn how the water department gained an actual reading of his meter on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010 and mailed him a bill for an actual read he calls "fraudulent."
“How did they read it,” Ford asked. “Both me and my wife were home and nobody came to the house and my meter is in the basement—does the city have employees from another planet with X-ray vision like Superman,” he said.
He received the bill in February for $11,700 and the bill claimed he used 70,000 cubic feet of water—500,000 gallons—during the dead of winter. Under normal circumstances, Ford said, his bill usually runs about $2oo per quarter for about 2,000 cubic feet of water.
“How did they read it,” Ford said. Prior to the reading, Ford said, his bills had been estimated.
Ford said he met with water department officials in March who told him his meter was read with an outside electronic device—one of the ones the city has admitted are often faulty and will be replaced over the next 18 months.
“I have proof that device hasn’t worked in years,” Ford said.
He said department employees also tried to convince him he had used 500,000 gallons of water in a three month period--suggesting he had leaks from his pool—which was not being used during the fall and winter—or possibly children playing with an outside hose, or excessive inside water use or an undetected leak in the toilet.
Ford said employees over and over told him he had been undercharged for months, possibly years, but he does not believe it.
“They’re trying to put all the responsibility on the homeowner instead of their own mismanagement,” Ford said.
Public Works Commissioner Michael Thoreson, who could not be immediately reached for comment, has said the water department is working with residents, however, Tuesday night during a meeting of the City Council Finance Committee said he could not answer why even actual bills and not estimated bills are believed to be way off.
Ward 6 City Councilor Michelle DuBois during the meeting said she is worried that the actual readings are a problem along with the estimated bills and it’s a situation that has to be looked at.
“Every day people come to me and are calling me wondering if they will get bills in the thousands somewhere down the road,” DuBois said. “This is not just an issue of estimated bills,” she said, citing numerous instances of problems related to actual bills and even homeowners who contacted the city because they had not received a water bill during the first six months of occupancy and have been dealing with the department over the problem for seven years.
To rounds of applause DuBois questioned why the city was charging people 2 or 4 or 10 years back for estimated water bills when most communities do not extend those charges so far back.
She could not be immediately reached for further comment.
City Councilor Jass Stewart said the water department and the city certainly has a public relations problem and in many of the high profile cases the water department did not act the way he'd want civil servants to act.
“A lot of things don’t make sense, and it’s clear people have lost confidence in the water department,” Stewart said.
However, he believes the process will work in the end and except in extreme instances water department officials acted appropriately, but may need more customer service training.
“We’re hearing 200 or 300 people are calling a day and when people are calling you and shouting and calling you nasty names and you’re not used to that kind of volume of calls it’s not easy,” he said. “Maybe we need to give those employees more training,” Stewart said.
Stewart said there are a myriad of problems with the situation, including the inability of the water department to gain access to the meters.
The city council is mulling a new ordinance that would allow the city into a home after a certain amount of attempts.
Also, the council Tuesday night has voted to issue a Request for Proposals for an outside auditor to review all of the problems in the water department—a process that will take at least three to four months—possibly longer.
Mayor Linda Balzotti, who wanted to hire an auditor nearly two months ago, but acceded to the City Council’s wish to have a public RFP process, said she undertstands people's frustrations because she is frustrated too.
“People want me to do something, make a decision, but I can’t do anything or make a decision without answers. The audit will give us recommendations and resolutions and until then I don’t have any answers to the questions people are asking,” she said.
In the meantime, Balzotti said residents should check their bills and continue to contact the water department if they have any discrepancies.
She emphasized residents should pay the current bill—unless it is completely out of proportion and in that case contact the water department—and await the results of the audit.
The City Council will meet Monday, Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. to draft the scope and charge of the RFP for the independent auditor.
In the meantime, Ford said he isn't waiting for the audit because he believes he needs outside help for his situation.
"All they're doing is CYA," Ford said.

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