Officials sorry for ‘failure’

Spoke at hearing on billing fiasco

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2011

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Two top city managers at the center of Brockton’s water-billing fiasco have taken some, but not all, responsibility for the colossal meter-reading system failure that sent out five- and six-figure bills to some residents last year and then put liens on their homes when they couldn’t pay.

During a three-hour meeting with the City Council’s Finance Committee last week, Chief Financial Officer John Condon and Department of Public Works Commissioner Michael Thoreson said they knew the system was failing in 2005 but hesitated to borrow the $11 million needed to start replacing it because of other pressing, expensive capital projects.

“We thought we could manage through it,’’ Condon said.

Tomorrow, the City Council will vote on a new policy to hold city residents who received the inaccurate bills responsible for just the last three years’ of underestimations. Those figures will be compared with one year of actual usage tracked by a new meter, to come up with what they owe, Thoreson said. The policy becomes effective if Mayor Linda Balzotti adopts it. She has indicated she supports it.

Most bills were correct, Condon said during Monday’s meeting, but 714 homes had low, estimated readings for more than six billing cycles. If there was actually higher consumption, the big bills were generated and went out without anyone noticing, or flagging them, he said.

“That shouldn’t have occurred,’’ he said. “It was an unfortunate failure, and I have to say I’m sorry for that.’’

“Could we have done things more effectively? Yes, we could have,’’ Thoreson said. “We did make some mistakes along the way, but when you’re in the middle trying to fight your way out of the bag, it’s a little difficult to see it. We did the best we could with what we had.’’

Condon and Thoreson faced the Finance Committee to discuss 70 reforms and other issues highlighted in a recent $97,000 audit of the DPW’s policies and procedures, as well as a full-scale meter replacement program that kicks into high gear this week and continues over the next 18 months. The cost of the replacement project has since been cut from an estimated $11 million to about $4.6 million.

The city has already replaced several thousand of the 22,000-plus water meters.

Software for the new system will alert the water department within two days if a meter is malfunctioning, officials said, which should avert a disaster similar to last year’s.

Some residents who have been pushing for accountability on the broken system, however, are not appeased by the council’s recommendations, and the department heads’ acknowledgements of fault.

“A three-year look back is what we, as a group, suggested to the powers that be over a year and a half ago,’’ said Marianne Silva, a member of the grass-roots group Brockton United Voices. She received a $2,400 water bill after she said she had her first actual reading in eight years. It was later cut in half, but liens were still placed on her property.

Everyone knew the meters were failing and the estimated readings went on far too long, she said. “The $97,000 audit was not needed for that,’’ she said.

What’s worse, Silva said, is that city officials had characterized people like her who objected to the big bills as rogue citizens who denied access so meter readers couldn’t get accurate counts.

“That is completely false,’’ she said of the characterization. “I never received a single door tag, never mind a knock at the door, or a letter requesting access.’’

At the meeting Monday night, City Solicitor Philip Nessralla warned councilors not to discuss personnel issues publicly. But to some councilors, the question of whether management failure led to the breakdown is at the core of the matter.

“Have you looked at supervision of employees?’’ asked Councilor at Large Thomas Brophy, who originally called for the audit.

“I do not believe there has been a lack of supervision,’’ Thoreson said. “’’I believe I and my staff have worked diligently to run a tight ship.’’

Residents like Bob Ford, a retired beverage salesman whose nearly $12,000 water bill helped spark the controversy, said they don’t agree.

“The senior management staff needs to be replaced for letting this escalate to the point where it’s at right now,’’ Ford said. “In the private sector, if a debacle like this were to occur, corporate heads would definitely roll.’’

Ward 1 City Councilor Timothy Cruise made the motion for the Finance Committee to recommend the three-year “look-back’’ policy, saying he wants the incorrect bills corrected and the door closed on this episode in the city’s history.

“It’s time to move on from this,’’ he said.

That’s not likely to be the case for Councilor at Large Jass Stewart, who said he had a number of questions that weren’t addressed on Monday because Council president Paul Studenski didn’t call on him.

Stewart, with Ward 6 Councilor Michelle DuBois, has led the charge for management accountability and said he is not giving up until he gets answers.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at