Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Water Bill Problems Prompt Audit, Other Changes

By Lisa E. Crowley
BROCKTON----City officials are taking steps to have an independent auditor speak individually to city councilors and some individual residents about problems associated with disputed water bills and are developing a type of official water dispute form that would allow residents to contest their water bill and ensure those residents meet a Feb. 1 deadline.
Tuesday night during a testy City Council Finance Committee meeting, councilors asked Treasurer-Collector Martin Brophy and Chief Financial Officer John Condon what the process and discussion was surrounding the decision to place liens on homeowners who have and continue to dispute what are considered unusually high water bills.
At one point, Councilor-at-large Jass Stewart said he was disappointed by how the water bill situation has been handled and believed there should be more communication between city department heads and the City Council because none of the members had been part of the discussion whether or not to place liens on residents’ property taxes because of the disputed bills--especially when it was clear the city’s water billing systems are not “all systems normal.”
About two weeks ago residents received attachments or liens with their third quarter property tax bills that unless paid will add any overdue water, sewer or trash payments to the homeowners property tax balance—a move that some residents have said will balloon their mortgage payments and possibly force the loss of their homes.
Chief Financial Officer John Condon responded that officials believe there are only a handful—maybe 20, 30 or 50-residents who feel they are aggrieved.
“I don’t think we’re too far from all systems normal,” Condon said.
Ward 2 City Councilor Thomas Monahan said he received a list from the Department of Public Works consisting of about 60 residents who have had meetings for abatements.
Condon went on to say the city every year places liens on utility bills, including water, sewer and trash pickup on overdue balances and this year’s estimated 6,500 to 7,000 lien notices is about average. Condon noted that not all of the 6,500 liens are residents with water bill disputes.
“By next year almost all of those will have been taken care of,” Condon said, adding there has been “a lot of hullabaloo” in the media and a “public outcry” that makes this year’s lien commitments seem worse than others.
When he talked to Department of Public Works Commissioner Michael Thoreson about holding back some of the liens for residents who have disputed their bills or have unusually high overdue balances, Condon said he was told by Thoreson that residents who have received abatements have got them, and that the bills that have been placed as liens are true and accurate.
He said much of the public outcry is based on supposition and speculation and has been inflammatory.
Regarding communication with the City Council, Condon said there is a separation of branches of government and he has no obligation to reach out to the City Council because his office is governed by the executive branch, or the mayor’s office.
“Make a phone call,” Condon told Stewart. “If you’ve got questions pick up the phone,” he said.
It was not the only testy moment during the more than two-hour meeting.
Councilor-at-large Todd Petti recited an anectdote or example of either himself or someone else inheriting a property and either neglecting to pay about $100 per quarter utility bill or knowingly not paying it, and after several changes to the owners on the deed without a sale of the property and after more than a year of not paying utility bills suddenly is hit with a massive bill and begins to complain the city has a problem with its metering and billing system.
Raising his voice and pointing, Petti advised his fellow councilors to research some of the individual high water bills and know the whole story before “putting their necks on the line” to support people who have not paid their share of city bills.
He also noted that people who don’t pay their water and sewer bills—even after 9 quarters or two years-- still get their trash picked up even though water and sewer pays for that trash pickup.
During another heated moment council President Paul Studenski called for a two-minute recess when Ward 6 City Councilor Michelle DuBois asked Studenski to stop Petti and Councilor-at-large Thomas Brophy from getting up and having a conservation with one another while she was asking questions about the water bills.
DuBois also said there shouldn’t be “character assassination” toward residents over the water bills and noted many of those disputing their bills have continued paying them and are hardworking people in all kinds of financial and personal situations.
In between the flare-ups, Chief Financial Officer John Condon—also a member of the audit committee that is overseeing a $97,000 independent audit by The Abrahams Group--said at the request of city councilors officials are attempting to modify the scope of the audit to allow auditors the chance to speak with not only city council members, but also some of the residents who have come forward and have been vocal that they do not believe they used the water they are being billed for, including those who have a $17,000, $12,000 or $4,000 bill.
Condon said officials have looked toward dropping a review of the water and sewer department’s reporting procedures and practices to the Department of Environmental Protection and review of some financial appropriations to the state.
Condon said officials do not believe the changes will go out of the scope of the original Request for Proposals and not exceed the requirements of the state procurement laws—which if exceeded would need a new round of proposals or force city officials to stick with the proposal’s original structure.
Another measure being taken to help residents who dispute their water bill is the development of a new type of form to be filled out by residents to trigger the dispute process in case they cannot meet with Department of Public Works Commissioner Michael Thoreson by Feb. 1.
Water bills must be paid by Feb. 1 or a resident who disputes the water bill and refuses to pay it must have had an abatement hearing by Feb. 1 in order to have rights at the Appellate Tax Board.
Without the abatement hearing by Feb. 1, residents who do not pay the water bill lose their rights at the Appellate Tax Board.
Residents who have paid their water bills, but still dispute it can take their claims to district, superior or small claims court—but also must meet a specific timeline to maintain their rights.
Ward 6 Councilor DuBois said the City Solicitor’s office is developing an official water dispute form because some people—either because of work or other reasons—who want to dispute the bill and not pay it—must have an abatement hearing with the billing authority—the water department—before Feb. 1 and some have contacted her and the mayor’s office about meeting the Feb. 1 deadline.
DuBois said the water dispute form is not complete yet, but should be available soon, likely before a public meeting that will be held Jan. 31 at the Mary Baker School cafeteria at 7 p.m. about the water billing problems, the city’s response and residents’ rights.

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