Tuesday, November 8, 2011

DuBois Focuses On Ordinance Not DPW Head's Comments

By Lisa E. Crowley
BROCKTON—Ward 6 City Councilor Michelle DuBois isn’t as worried about comments made to her by Department of Public Works ead Michael Thoreson near the end of an ordinance committee meeting Monday night as she is about getting a new water bill ordinance passed that she believes will help residents today and in the future when problems with their bills arise.
“I don’t really want to dwell on what he said,” DuBois said after the meeting. “I don’t want the importance of the problems to get lost…I don’t understand the personal nature of it all. They seem to think if I stop asking questions it will all go away,” she said.
About 15 minutes before the end of last night’s meeting that wrapped up with a favorable vote for DuBois’ new ordinance, Thoreson, who has been under fire for over a year from residents and some councilors, lost his temper while discussing his side of DuBois’ ordinance and responded by saying, “I’m at wits end taking this crap from you.”
Thoreson could not immediately be reached for comment about last night’s meeting.
DuBois said while she found Thoreson’s comments offensive, she would prefer to highlight different information that came out of the meeting, such as the difference between how many residents or households will be affected by the outcome of her ordinance.
Her ordinance would require the water department get an actual meter reading once every year, unlike the current ordinance which does not require an actual for at least two years.
The whole water mess began because many residents had not received actual readings in months and in some cases, 8 to 12 years, until bills trying to catch-up those estimates nearly gave residents heart attacks when they opened their mail to find water bills from $3,000 to $23,000 to, in one case, $100,000.
DuBois’ ordinance also gives residents who have two years or more of estimated readings to have their usage based on 6 months of actual readings, unlike the current ordinance which only allows an actual reading to be used for the lookback if meters have been tested and identified as faulty.
The current lookback policy, DuBois said, falls short of expectations and doesn’t take into account many things, especially the 2-year lookback based on actual readings over the last six months.
Officials have been against this formula because residents could conserve water over those 6 months and skew the readings.
The current formula uses an average based on two years of estimated bills—even though those bills are disputed and residents may not have all the information they need—such as if their meter has been tested, proof the meter has been tested, and the results of those tests—to decide if they want to sign-off on the city’s agreement notices for disputed bills.
Residents who agree to the city’s latest attempt to resolve disputed bills, must also agree not to take the city to court or appeal the water bill with the state Appellate Tax Board.
DuBois said officials are also misinforming people when they say 14 of 20 residents who have taken their cases to the state Appellate Tax Board have agreed to the city’s terms under the current two-year lookback policy and claim it is a sign of satisfaction with the policy.
Dubois said those remaining 6, including Robert Ford and Ayanna Cato--who were the first to make their water woes public—are struggling under a policy whose formula for payment often depends on how DPW employees feel about the person and not on actual water usage.
“A lot of this is being based on the department’s thoughts about someone,” DuBois said. “There needs to be a formula,” she said.
DuBois said the 20 residents might be a positive case study, but she is looking toward the next phase of lookback notices when more than 700 residents who have been identified as having problem bills begin to get their latest notices and agreement offers.
Ford has said he will not pay the city a dime, and since the current lookback policy was put in place, his bill has dropped from $23,000 to $4,000 and now about $2,500.
Even so, Ford is adamant he will not pay anything to the city, especially since the city’s independent auditor concluded the city owes Ford money.
“We’ve waited two years and people are still being shafted,” DuBois said.
The full City Council will still have to vote on DuBois’ additions to a two-year look back policy approved by the City Council and Balzotti a few months ago.
Since the water bill debacle began in the summer of 2010, Thoreson has taken heat from many of the residents who have been fighting outrageously high water bills. City Councilors like DuBois and Jass Stewart have asked tough questions about management. Some public meetings and many private meetings with some residents have devolved into personality attacks on both sides.
Animosity toward city officials over the water bill fiasco, in part, launched resident Ron Matta’s mayoral campaign against incumbent Mayor Linda Balzotti with a platform that he would fire or demote Thoreson if elected, and possibly look at the employment of Chief Financial Officer John Condon, who Matta blames for not having replaced outdated water meters five years ago when it was first brought forward to the City Council.
Balzotti and other city officials have said the situation is complicated, and a program of water meter replacement was not initiated five years ago, mostly because application for low-interest loans from the state did not receive approvals until last summer.
Balzotti has also said management issues within the DPW are being addressed, but because they are personnel matters she is not at liberty to discuss what is taking place in closed meetings.
DuBois said she has nothing personal against Thoreson or his department—even though they might think so.
She said her ordinance and constant questions, emails and phone calls aren’t about DPW employees individually, it’s about fairness for residents of Brockton and management of difficult issues, especially more than 700 lookback offers that will soon be sent to residents.
“Seven hundred bills will be looked at through this lens,” DuBois said. “We need to delineate exactly what the formula is,” she said.

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