Local

‘How is this possible?’: Some Mass. residents told they owe tens of thousands in water bills

NEWTON, Mass. — A Newton man has launched a petition to seek a forbearance after he says a shockingly huge water bill landed in his mailbox, as well as the mailboxes of other residents.

In a post on Change.org, Marc Heimlich wrote, “The city charged one resident $67,000 and my bill was over $15,000. For my household, this translates to 366,750 gallons of ‘excess’ water usage for a period of less than four years. How is this possible?”

Heimlich says the city is in the process of swapping out old water meters for new ones, but that the older units are still recording water usage even though they malfunctioned in 2019 and haven’t transmitted readings since then.

“The city should not penalize residents for their inability to collect accurate meter reads for the past four years and residents should have more than 30 days to reconcile with the city to determine how the overage was incurred and applied and whether it is due to a leak or inaccurate reporting,” Heimlich wrote. “It is also unfair to charge for four years of back usage without any warning because residents had no ability to reconcile the overage.”

Heimlich is hopeful his petition will serve as a platform to share Newtonians’ “concerns about the city’s approach to estimating bills, the short timeline for reconciliation, and the transparency of the process.”

Heimlich also says the bills don’t explain how the difference in “estimated” and “actual” water usage was calculated.

These hefty water bills are not the result of a clerical mistake. Rather, they’re a by-product of the pandemic.

In a statement, Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller confirmed that meters and transmitters are being replaced citywide and that the bills residents have been receiving are accurate.

The city usually replaces water meters every 10 years. The last time that was done, in 2010 — 2012, another device called a Meter Transmission Unit, was added. MTUs allow DPW workers to remotely read water usage without entering homes or businesses.

But just as the pandemic started, those old MTUs began relaying inaccurate information. Normally, they would have been replaced in short order. But Fuller said supply chain issues precluded the manufacturer from meeting the city’s needs.

“Every property owner who receives a bill based on estimated usage is sent a letter each billing quarter informing them of the malfunctioning MTU, and asking them to read their water meter and submit the reading to our Water Billing Department so that they could adjust their bill to reflect actual usage,” Fuller explained.

Fuller added that the city has been estimating water usage because they’ve still had to make payments to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

“Since the malfunctioning MTUs have not been sending actual meter readings from property owners’ water meters, the city has been estimating water consumption based on like periods over the previous four years,” Fuller said. “Please know that while some residents have been paying bills based on estimated usage, the city of Newton has had to pay the MWRA for the city’s overall actual water usage.”

Residents who receive a “catchup bill” have the option of spreading the balance owed equally over 12 months or making minimal monthly payments for 11 months with a final balloon payment in month 12.

To date, Newton has installed 4,600 new meter/transponders with the goal of replacing 30,000 in total in the next 16-22 months.

“I’m shocked,” said Kay Masterson, co-owner of Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton Center.

Masterson hasn’t received her “back-due” bill yet but fears what it might be.

“We generally pay $15-20,000 a year for water,” she said. “If the bill comes and it’s a big one, that’s a real hardship for us and for any resident or business.”

Masterson said any restaurant uses a lot of water — between dishwashing, sanitation, and restroom usage.

“We’ve done as much conservation as we can,” she said. “But the reality is we use a lot of water and we get charged a lot.”

Heimlich has noticed that, too.

“We pay significantly more for water than surrounding towns,” he said. “Why are they charging us outrageous amounts for their own issue of not being able to record the water meters over the last four years?”

As of Wednesday, 198 people had signed Heimlich’s petition.

The same issue has been reported in other communities, including the city of Somerville.

“We are replacing water meters that accurately measure water consumption but require updating because they include a transmitter that is no longer communicating with our billing system,” Somerville’s Director of Water and Sewer Demetrios Vidalis said in a statement. “When our billing system is unable to collect the usage data from a transmitter, we send estimated bills to the Water and Sewer ratepayers based on their recent usage history, until a manual reading is conducted.”

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