EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 20, 2013

Woman shocked by $1,593 water bill

She and city debate charge that's 15 times her normal bill

By Mike LaBella
mlabella@eagletribune.com

---- — The city’s Water Department couldn’t find a leak at a Haverhill woman’s home, and neither could a privately hired plumber.

Now the woman is being asked to pay a whopper of a water bill, nearly $1,600 for three months usage instead of her normal $100.

Anne Proctor and the city appear to be at an impasse. She said it must have been a mistake, possibly a faulty meter reading, while city water officials say the meter was operating properly and that the big bill likely resulted from an undetected leak that somehow was eventually resolved.

The only recourse Proctor has is to file for an abatement with the city in hopes of being granted some sort of leniency, officials said.

“Unfortunately, I have no choice but to pay it,” said Proctor, who owns a condex near Haverhill High School. “You should not have to pay and then try to get your money back. But I will pay my bill, just as long as it’s an accurate bill.”

She said she was told she has to pay the bill before she can go before the city’s Water and Wastewater Abatement Board to plead her case.

“I’m angry and frustrated,” Proctor said. “If I pay this in full, it’s more than my mortgage (payment). And if I pay it in installments, they’ll charge me 14 percent interest.”

The situation Proctor finds herself in began when she received her most recent quarterly water bill.

Instead of her typical bill of about $100 for roughly 12,000 gallons of water, Proctor was billed $1,593 for about 185,000 gallons of water — more than 15 times her average water usage for three months.

She said she doesn’t have a swimming pool, doesn’t have a lawn sprinkler system and can’t explain such an abnormally high level of usage.

“I called the Water Department thinking it was an error and was told I have a leak and that I must have used all that water,” she said. “How can one person use that much?”

Proctor said the city gave her dye tablets to test for leaks, but she could not detect any leaks. She then hired a plumber, who also could not find any leaks, she said.

“The water plant manager was here and he said there didn’t seem to be any leaks,” she said. “If a toilet tank was leaking, I would have heard it.”

“Whether I heard it or not, there wasn’t a leak,” she said.

Robert Ward, the city’s water and sewer director, said meter readings confirmed the high level of usage, and that testing of the meter showed it was working properly.

Proctor said the plumber she hired tested all the fixtures in her home, but was unable to detect any leaks.

“I met with Bob Ward and he said I could get a meter test done, which we had done by the city meter reader,” she said.

Proctor said her meter was replaced with a new one and that her father, John Proctor, was present when the meter which was removed from her home was tested. John Proctor said he’s read about faulty meter readings taking place in communities across the country and wonders if there is an undiscovered problem with the meter that was removed from his daughter’s home.

“Since they tested the meter, I’ve found that it’s not a definitive test as air could get into the line and disrupt the reading and vibrations could affect the meter as well, causing a false reading,” John Proctor said. “But when you passed pure water through it, the meter was correct.”

Ward said a leaky toilet tank could result in the loss of more than one gallon of water per minute, which he said would amount to about 1,875 gallons lost per day, or 168,750 gallons lost in three months.

“Whether it was a toilet leak, a faucet leak or something else, we just don’t know,” Ward said.

Anne Proctor said she has filed for an abatement, but there is no guarantee she will get any relief. And if she doesn’t pay her bill, she’s worried the city will shut off her water.

“That’s what they told me will happen if I don’t pay the bill,” she said. “And for a building to be habitable, you have to have running water.”

Ward said the abatement board, of which he is chairman, will try to be fair.

“If you come before the board and tell us you hired a plumber, that the meter usage is back to normal and that you’ve checked everything and can you help me out, purely on the basis of financial relief, and the board understands that,” Ward said.

But, Ward said the board will want to be assured the problem is not going to happen again.

“A typical scenario is if you have a high bill, you pay the bill, find the leak, submit your bills to the board, come to a meeting and state your case,” Ward said. “Before the meeting, we’ll go out and read the meter to ensure the usage is at a normal level.”

Ward said the abatement process takes time. He said the abatement board meets every two or three months, based on the billing cycle.

Ward said the board he chairs is made of four residents appointed by the mayor.

“We understand that things happen and that a lot of things can go wrong, which is why we have the abatement board process,” Ward said. “These are water/wastewater user rates and we can’t arbitrarily tell someone we’ll give them their money back. We have a specific process for obtaining some relief.”

Ward said water/wastewater customers can help avoid running into situations like these by checking their water meter readings on a regular basis.