EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 21, 2013

Editorial: Water bill demand doesn’t seem fair

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Imagine opening one’s quarterly water bill and finding a demand for nearly $1,600.

That’s what happened to a Haverhill woman, who is now seeking some kind of relief from the city. Unfortunately, the city so far has been less than understanding.

Anne Proctor has not been watering crops on a farm. She doesn’t even have a swimming pool or a lawn sprinkler system. She lives in a condex near Haverhill High. So Proctor was understandably stunned when she opened her bill and read that she owed $1,593 for the past quarter.

Proctor’s usual water bill has been around $100 for 12,000 gallons. The latest bill for $1,593 said she used 185,000 gallons. That’s more than 15 times her typical quarterly usage.

Clearly, the bill is in error. But the city’s Water Department doesn’t see it that way. Proctor said the department claims her water meter is running properly and the big bill must due to an undetected leak.

But the Water Department couldn’t find a leak at Proctor’s home. Nor could a private plumber Proctor hired find one.

Proctor’s only recourse is to file for relief with the city’s Water and Wastewater Abatement Board. But that’s a long process and in the meantime, she has to pay the bill.

“I’m angry and frustrated,” Proctor told reporter Mile LaBella. “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.”

It would seem reasonable that, if a homeowner’s water bill is so far outside of normal usage and if even the Water Department can detect no leaks, then the city ought to adjust the homeowner’s bill to something more reasonable.

Water Department Director Robert Ward told LaBella that’s what the abatement process is for.

“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.”

But that process takes time. Ward said the abatement board typically meets every two or three months. He recommends that homeowners check their water meters periodically to see that usage is normal.

“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.”

If Proctor doesn’t pay the bill she risks having her water shut off and her home rendered uninhabitable.

That seems excessively harsh, particularly when logic suggests that a mistake has been made somewhere.

A more fair means of handling such disputes would be to defer payment of the bill — or require a payment in line with past average usage — until the dispute is resolved.

Demanding a homeowner come up with what amounts to another mortgage payment to cover a water bill just makes no sense.