Tuesday, July 19, 2011

New Policy Limits 3-year "Look Back" In Disputed Water Bills

By Lisa E. Crowley
BROCKTON—Brockton City Council Finance Committee voted Monday night to limit the number of years the water department can charge residents for disputed bills—a move officials hope will help struggling residents and business owners, but at least one bill payer isn’t buying into the policy change.
“They’ve ruined so many people’s lives with their negligence,” said Gerry Goulston, a former Stoughton selectman who is fighting the city over a $6,000 bill for two commercial buildings in Brockton.
Goulston said despite policy and procedure changes surrounding a year-long look at billing problems in the water department, he and others have suffered at the hands of city officials and will not relinquish any other rights, such as a hearing with the state Appellate Tax Board.
Monday night July 18 the City Council Finance Committee met to hear recommendations from water department Director Michael Thoreson and Chief Financial Officer John Condon who were asked many questions about the water billing problem that began last August.
City Councilors voted to restrict to 3 years the amount of billing cycles the water department can “look back” at a bill when there might be a problem between the customer’s actual meter read and an estimate.
Many of the problems surrounding residents’ bills—most notably those over $10,000—stem from many years of estimated bills, some going back 5, 6, 10 or more years.
Mayor Linda Balzotti said she supported the 3-year limit, especially if 11 of 12 City Councilors, Chris MacMillan was absent, could come to an agreement on the new policy.
“Now we have a concrete plan to deal with these problems today and in the future,” Balzotti said after the nearly 2-hour discussion.
The City Council is expected to reaffirm the vote, Monday, July 25, when it holds its next regular meeting.
Balzotti said the 3-year policy could save thousands of dollars for many residents who are battling the city over their water bills.
A panel comprised of Thoreson, Condon and City Auditor Heidi Chuckran will take another look at 39 disputed bills—a group of bills that include some of the most outrageously high bills that have arisen during the last year.
However, Balzotti said, there likely will not be 100 percent satisfaction among the 39, and Balzotti noted water customers still have the State Appellate Tax Board to fight their bills.
Nearly all of the 39 have taken their cases to the State Appellate Tax Board.
Monday’s meeting was a followup to a presentation and recommendations two weeks ago from audit consultants The Abrahams Group and Woodard and Curran, who noted numerous problems within the water department—including a lack of training and the underutilization of billing software programs.
Thoreson and Condon last night said the water department problems could have been managed much better, however any pointed questions about management or mismanagement surrounding the situation went unasked after City Solicitor Philip Nessralla advised at the beginning of the session that personnel matters, such as management issues, should be avoided for privacy and confidentiality reasons.
Earlier during the finance committee meeting councilors were told the city-wide installation of new meters for all residential and commercial buildings will likely begin next week.
Condon said the project originally estimated at $18 and $11 million, will actually cost much less because bids came in at about $6.3 million and the state notified the city about a month ago it would forgive interest payments—saving the city more than $2 million.
Condon said the project is now totaled at just over $4 million.
Condon and Thoreson have said part of the problems associated with the water billing situation stemmed from an antiquated metering and billing system that utilizes at least three different meter reading processes and limited report-generation from the city's MUNIS system--a largescale billing system used by a majority of municipalities.
City officials have said the new meters and equipment will be compatible with MUNIS and reports that identify problem billing situations will be flagged quickly--unlike unusually high bills that were sent to residents last year sparking the current controversy.
Representatives of several contractors performing the new meter installation work said computers will go online later this week and workers will begin installing new meters and other equipment next week.
Letters to the first 100 water customers requesting appointments be scheduled for the work will begin this week, officials said.
Officials said installers will be registered with Brockton Police, have photo identification and clearly marked vehicles.
A video about the installation will be posted on the city’s website—possibly in several languages.
Anyone who has questions about the installation process can call 1-888-709-9944.

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