Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Water Dept. Audit Shows Changes Needed

By Lisa E. Crowley
BROCKTON—After a presentation of findngs and recommendations by independent auditing firms, several City Councilors and Mayor Linda Balzotti believe the first next step is to resolve some of the unusually high water bills that prompted scrutiny of water department systems last summer.
“Now, that we have the auditor’s recommendations the first thing we need to do is deal with residents who have high bills,” said Mayor Linda Balzotti following Monday night’s City Council Finance Committee meeting.
Balzotti said a so-called “look-back” policy could be a first step in resolving residents’ issues and is expected to form a committee to draft a policy—possibly by City Council’s finance committee meeting expected July 18.
“We’re going to have to look back at those bills and figure out if equipment failed or if they were tampered with or if there is something else and develop a policy,” Balzotti said.
During Monday’s meeting, representatives of The Abrahams Group and Woodard & Curran, outlined a more than 6-month process during which the firms reviewed water and sewer department policies, procedures, billing and adjustments processes.
Monday’s meeting is expected to be the first in many as city officials and residents wade through more than 800 pages of documents associated with the review.
The next meeting is expected in July when the City Council Finance Committee meets.
While some things were not entirely clear after Monday night’s nearly 3-hour presentation, what was clear is that changes must be made within the water and sewer departments—including employee training on billing software programs, policies to outline proper adjustments and abatements and how many years back the city will look to charge residents for water use when they have received estimated water bills.
The so-called “look-back” policy which would limit how many years back the city will go to recover water costs is likely to be a linchpin in whether or not residents like Robert Ford will have to pay an already adjusted $12,000 water bill and Ayanna Cato who has been fighting a $17,000 bill that has been lowered from $100,000.
“We have some work ahead of us,” said Councilor-at-large Thomas Brophy, who noted the city wants to treat everyone fairly.
The review outlines several circumstances that will be difficult for city officials to reconcile—most notably whether residents will be charged for estimated water use over a specific period of time.
City officials have said they can charge back as far as the current homeowner has lived on the property—which in some cases as many as 10, 12 or 18 years.
Residents like Ford and Cato have refused to pay their bills because they believe they have not used the water calculated.
The pair were two of six individual residents who had their bills reviewed during the audit and in Ford’s case the audit concluded his water usage was miscalculated.
Balzotti said some recommendations are going to be difficult to implement right away because they will require negotiations with union members over job descriptions and responsibilities.
During the presentation, Mark Abrahams, head of the Abrahams Group, said city officials will have to decide if one of several situations are involved in the unusually high bills, including malfunctioning city equipment and denial of access to homes and meters to take accurate readings by homeowners.
Abrahams said it seemed only fair not to charge homeowners if the city’s equipment has failed.
Ward 6 Councilor Michelle DuBois after the meeting said she agreed with fellow councilors that residents’ bills need to be adjusted and came out strong in favor of resolving six individual home owners whose bills were reviewed during the audit, including Bob Ford’s—who auditors said his meter readings were miscalculated.
DuBois said the water department is fraught with “mismanagement,” “negligence,” and “incompetence” and leading the way are Public Works Director Michael Thoreson and Water Systems Manager Brian Creedon.
“Mr. Ford is a more than 60-year-old retired man who shouldn’t have to deal with an (unusually large) water bill, especially when he didn’t use the water,” DuBois said.
“Thoreson makes over $100,000—for his more than $100,000 salary (Thoreson) should have been able to resolve Bob Ford’s problem…Bob Ford shouldn’t have to pay because Brian Creedon didn’t do his job,” she said.
Thoreson and Creedon could not immediately be reached for comment.
Thoreson and Creedon are expected to face questions from city councilors during the July 18 meeting. Because of the lengthy meeting questions directed at water department officials were postponed until the next meeting.
Marianne Silva, one of dozens of residents who have been fighting the water department over their bills since last summer, said the audit results in many ways show residents have been right all along and now city officials will have to act.
“I’m happy,” Silva said. “They are going to have to make changes--many changes,” she said.

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