MD - Water customers in Westminster hip-deep in bills : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Water customers in Westminster hip-deep in bills Sudden increases tied to meter reader who failed to read -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- By Maria Blackburn Sun Staff "I don't mind paying my water bill. I just don't want to pay three times that for their mistake."

Brian Pomeroy, whose two most recent water bills have been $375 and $424 instead of the usual $110

Jim Breslin doesn't own a backyard swimming pool, a dishwasher or an automatic sprinkler. The Westminster environmental consultant doesn't even wash his own car.

None of this is apparent from his most recent water bill.

Breslin's bill for three months, received last week, was $918.70 - nearly 10 times higher than usual.

When he contested the bill, the city of Westminster explained that its lone meter reader of seven years didn't always read water meters. The meter reader just said he did.

Now Breslin and up to 10 percent of the city's 8,500 water and sewer accounts are receiving water bills that are 50 percent to 900 percent higher than usual.

"It's a public relations nightmare," said Dale Taylor, supervisor of accounting for Westminster. "Obviously we wish he'd done his job, because if he had, we wouldn't be in the situation we're in."

The Department of Public Works employee, hired in December 1993, resigned in mid-March. City officials declined to release his name.

The procedure for determining water bills in Westminster has remained the same since the city purchased the Maryland Waterworks in 1964.

A meter reader visits account-holders four times a year and records how many gallons of water they've used. The city's finance department generates a quarterly water and sewer bill based on this information.

Taylor said the city had little reason to believe the meter reader wasn't doing his job until another employee filled in for him for a few days this winter. That employee's meter readings generated water bills that were higher and lower than usual.

After double-checking a number of the former employee's readings, Taylor said, the city realized the meter reader was using account history to estimate people's water use.

Taylor, a city employee for 18 years, said the city does not know how many accounts were estimated or for how long. Westminster now does random checks on water meter readings to make sure they are being reported correctly, he added.

"That's not to say he didn't estimate every single account there is," he said. "Maybe the other 90 percent they hit right on. There really is no way of knowing."

Meanwhile, Westminster residents such as Brian Pomeroy are having difficulty accepting and paying their water bills.

"I feel like I'm getting ripped off," said Pomeroy, whose two most recent water bills have been $375 and $424 instead of the usual $110. In addition, 30 days ago he received a water bill for his business, Best Pizza, that was $460, four times higher than usual.

"I don't mind paying my water bill," he said. "I just don't want to pay three times that for their mistake."

Pomeroy complained to the city about his first water bill, then paid it after a public works employee visited his home and found the water meter was working properly. He plans to turn over the bill for his restaurant to his lawyer.

Common causes for a high water bill include a leak in a water line or a malfunctioning toilet.

Jim Breslin has neither, he said. In fact, he isn't even sure his family of four used the water they were billed for. He thinks the bulk of his water bill reflects years of use by the family of six who previously owned his two-bathroom Colonial on Ridge Road.

Breslin's next-door neighbor, Joe Fleck, knows he and his wife certainly didn't use all of the water they were billed for. Fleck's most recent water bill was $1,043, instead of the usual $60.

"My wife and I both work," said Fleck, 55, who has lived in his two-bedroom house for two years. "All we do at home is sleep there."

"This is not reasonable," said Breslin, who, like Fleck, has written a letter to Thomas B. Beyard, Westminster's director of planning and public works, to contest his bill. "This is excessive."

Beyard was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

Taylor estimates that 150 customers have contested their water bills. He says the city plans to review complaints case-by-case after receiving them in writing.

If the city determines that a water bill is correct, though higher than usual, an account holder can pay the bill in installments. Some people are receiving higher water bills that are correct, he said.

Bills will be adjusted lower for others if the city decides they have been charged too much. So far, the city has credited water accounts at least several thousand dollars as a result, Taylor said.

Gaven Bullock, the owner of a Westminster landscaping service, was credited about $5,250 of his $7,000 bill when the city determined it should have caught the leak causing his inflated bill nine months ago, Taylor said.

Westminster's water comes from a stream behind the water treatment plant on Old Manchester Road, the city reservoir on Lucabaugh Mill Road and 10 wells. For a homeowner who lives in the city of Westminster, water costs $17.70 for up to 6,000 gallons.

Taylor said the city would not have to increase water rates because of the meter reader's failure. Budgets completed in February were based on past, not projected, revenues.

-- Doris (, August 11, 2000

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