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Complaints flood Newton over retroactive water bills

Group seeks cap on retroactive charges

By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2011

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More than 30 baffled and angry Newton residents vowed Wednesday night to fight City Hall over staggeringly high water bills that they say were caused by the city’s failure to warn them that their water meters had not been accurately read, some for years.

A citizens group called Newton H2O, formed by three residents after they unexpectedly received water bills ranging from $1,800 to $4,800, has called for the city to cap bills at no more than 25 percent higher than the average of past amounts. The group also wants an independent audit of the water department.

“The city didn’t warn the citizens how they’d been inaccurately billed for years,’’ said Mark Cestari, a cofounder of Newton H2O with Terri Flannery and Gary Blair. “It was like a ticking time bomb. Every year, the gap was getting wider and wider and wider between what you owed and what you thought you owed.’’

Newton officials acknowledge that failing equipment had made it impossible to accurately read water meters.

At issue is whether the city did enough to prepare residents for the possibility that, when new water meters were installed beginning in the summer of 2010, they could be hit with high bills to make up for earlier undercharges.

Newton H2O members said they are scheduled to discuss their issues with the Board of Aldermen’s Public Facilities Committee this Wednesday. They’re organizing meetings with aldermen, they said, and trying to get the word out.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,’’ said Cestari. “Our strength is in numbers.’’

Many residents arrived at last week’s meeting, convened as a strategy session by Newton H2O in City Hall, with bills showing debts of thousands of dollars. Peter Conlon’s single-quarter total was $10,992.72, and he’d previously been paying a quarterly bill that he assumed was correct.

“There’s no rhyme or reason,’’ he said. “It never dawned on me I was getting a bargain on water.’’

Stephanie Craig said that the city had failed to bill her for the last six years, and she had not realized she was missing payments until she received a quarterly water bill seeking $28,121.

Officials acknowledged that the failure to bill Craig was their mistake, and reduced her bill to $17,848. Craig and the city have agreed to a six-year, interest-free payment plan.

“The whole thing seems really crazy to me,’’ Craig said.

No Department of Public Works officials attended the meeting. The only city official on hand was Alderman Charlie Shapiro, who said he would bring the residents’ appeal, and his concerns with the apparent inconsistency of the city’s response, to the board for discussion.

During the meeting, some residents said they’d received abatements, others said they’d been told to check their properties for leaks. Many said they felt confused and stonewalled.

“Obviously, there’s a problem,’’ Shapiro said. “The city should not be playing ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ with people’s water bills.’’

Department of Public Works officials, however, say that while they understand residents’ frustration, the high bills should not come as a shock. They said that they did everything in their power to notify residents that their water bills could be wrong - and now the bills need to be paid.

“The bottom line is, this is actual water you’ve used, so you should pay for it,’’ said the Department of Public Works commissioner, David Turocy, in an interview. “It’s a fairness issue.’’

He said the department was not being inconsistent by considering billing on a case-by-case basis, because “everybody’s situation is a little different.

“I think it’s fair to people to look at them individually, but we’re not applying different rules to different folks,’’ Turocy said.

Newton’s water meters were installed in the early 1980s, he said, and designed to last for about 20 years.

About six or seven years ago, he said, the devices the city used to read the meters began to break down, and the technology was so old they could not be fixed or replaced.

Sometimes the devices provided inaccurate readings, and sometimes they couldn’t read a meter at all, Turocy said. When no reading could be taken, officials issued estimated water bills based on past actual bills.

By 2008, one in four water bills were based on estimates due to equipment malfunction, according to a report by the aldermen’s Public Facilities Committee dated April 2008.

In May 2009, said Turocy, the department’s last two meter-reading devices failed, leaving officials with no way to gauge water use.

Some residents read the meters themselves and called the results in, but the majority, he said, just paid their estimated bills.

Printed on every bill until June 2009, said Turocy and Karen Griffey, director of administration for the Department of Public Works, was a line warning residents that they should be checking their meters to make sure the estimated bills matched actual readings.

After June 2009, the warnings came off the bills, but the city mailed two sets of bright-pink fliers with the same warning, Griffey said, and in the summer of 2007 made phone calls to homes with eight or more estimated bills.

For the past two years, said Griffey, officials have left notices on doors every quarter telling residents to check their meters. And, she said, the reminder was posted on the home page of the city’s website.

But many residents at Wednesday’s meeting said they’d never gotten warnings or notices.

“They keep saying they warned us, but they didn’t,’’ said Blair.

The city has set up an option for residents to spread payments over a year with no interest.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, said Griffey, 319 bills were disputed for being unusually high due to previous too-low estimates. So far this fiscal year, she said, 164 bills have been disputed for the same reason.

In the same space of time, she said, the DPW had issued 7,733 abatements based on estimated bills that had overcharged water customers.

The bills being issued from the new water meters are accurate, Turocy said. By January, once every home in Newton has a new water meter, he expects the problems to stop.

Turocy said that the department will not be considering Newton H2O’s request to reduce water bills.

“I understand them asking for some relief - it’s a big bill and times are tough,’’ he said. “At this time, we’re not entertaining a relief or a cap on bills.’’

Turocy added that his department is discussing the group’s request for an investigation or audit of the water division’s operations, but no decision has been made.