Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Water Bill Dispute Enters New Phase

By Lisa E. Crowley
BROCKTON—Interviews of residents with disputed water bills by the city’s independent auditing firm are set to begin next week—a round of interviews that began with city councilors earlier this month.
Interviews with residents are expected to begin Monday, Feb. 28 and will continue Monday, March 7, several officials and residents said.
Councilor interviews began Feb. 8 and members met with The Abrahams Group in shifts over the next couple of weeks.
Each of the city’s ward councilors is expected to pick one resident to meet with the review team. Councilor-at-Large Thomas Brophy, the only councilor at large to choose a resident, has picked Robert Ford, a resident who has been vocal and public about his fight with the water department over his bill that was reduced to $12,000—a figure Ford believes is still erroneous.
Among those who are expected to meet with auditors are Ayanna Yancey Cato—the woman who received a $100,000 bill—and Marianne Silva, who has paid her bill, but disputes the numbers involved.
Not all city councilors have made public their picks-yet.
Ward 1 Councilor Timothy Cruise said he has asked a particular lady, but has not heard back if she will be able to attend.
Ward 3 Councilor Dennis Eaniri said in a telephone message and Council President Paul Studenski said in a telephone interview they have made their picks, but are also uncertain if the residents will accept or will be able to make the scheduled interviews.
Dennis DeNapoli could not be reached for comment, but sources have said he has made his pick, but it is uncertain if the resident has accepted.
Kathy Jewett, who was chosen by Ward 7 Councilor Chris MacMillan, is president of the Fieldside Gardens Condominiums Association,which has had ongoing problems with meter readings and problem bills.
Jewett and others in the condo complex have tracked their water bills for over two years and since the latest snafu have had maintenance personnel monitor and record the meters on a quarterly basis—a step Jewett said should not be necessary, but is considering the problems.
Jewett said during the summer when the water bill issue erupted, the condominium complex was hit with a $55,000 bill that was reduced, but the change left numerous questions about the process and formula used to decrease the bill.
She said condo owners are still getting far-fetched bills and are still working with the water department to fix the problems. Steps have been taken to find leaks and none have been found, she said.
“No one is getting an actual read,” Jewett said. “The actuals are actually based on estimates,” she said.
One of the reasons she, Ford and others want to bring their individual problems to the review team is to ensure the auditors understand what the problems are and that the review includes all of the issues associated with metering and billing problems—not just the ones city officials might have mentioned.
“We want to make sure the system is fixed. We want to make sure bills that say they are actual reads are just that, and not based on estimated water use,” Jewett said.
Residents also want to ensure a process is in place that outlines the formula and criteria water officials used to reduce bills that were seemingly high.
“There’s no paperwork. No one knows how they came up with these numbers,” Jewett said.
One of the concerns voiced since July when the problems surfaced is that people who have been receiving bills that were supposed to be actual reads—either by an electronic device or a human worker--may be hit with high bills in the future because the system is broken.
Jewett said there are numerous examples of actual reads that cannot be right—most notably bills in the hundreds of dollars for unoccupied units or extremely low actual bills for apartments occupied by two or more residents.
Initially many of the problem bills, officials said, were a result of meter readings that had been estimated and when the water department went back and billed residents--in some cases for 10, 12, or 15 years of water use--unusually high bills were mailed igniting a furor.
Initially some water department and city officials blamed residents for not contacting the water department to have meter readers come to the house, condo or business to have meter readers enter the property and gain an actual reading.
Councilor Tim Cruise said the water department’s initial reaction was not a good one and residents should not have been blamed.
“The process of putting the onus on the resident to get a reading was not good policy,” Cruise said.
He said since his meeting with the auditors he is confident solutions are imminent and believes the billing problem is not as widespread as once thought.
He said he has had only two calls about problem bills and one of those is more about a sewer problem than a water billing problem.
Cruise said he is really interested in seeing how many residents were actually contacted for actual reads and how many refused to allow city workers in.
Since the summer many officials have conceded water department and city officials did not handle the matter very well and without an independent review costing $97,000it would be difficult to repair the credibility or trust within the water department.
Without an independent review, officials and residents said, the current level of hostility and underlying personal attacks that have grated both sides of the issue would likely be worse.
“In some cases it has been ugly” said Ward 3 Councilor Thomas Monahan, who said he has high hopes for recommendations and solutions since he met with The Abrahams Group earlier this month.
“They’re a very competent firm,” Monahan said. “These guys are accountants and they are looking at the numbers,” he said.
Monahan said he received a list of everything the auditing firm will review, including defective meters and data collection devices on the meters, internal processes and guidelines within the water department when dealing with problems and why water department personnel did not know about or did not use software programs that may have flagged problem readings—like a much publicized $100,000 bill.
Monahan said the software existed to red-flag some of the more outrageous bills, but was either underutilized, or employees were not trained to use the software and or did not know the software existed at all.
“It’s going to be three years before all of this stuff is fixed,” Monahan said, but added, “at least we will have a plan to deal with it and hopefully we won't have these problems in the future.

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