Wednesday, October 1, 2014 || By Michael Romain || UPDATED: Thursday, October 2, 2014, 5:00 PM
Senior homeowners are getting $600, $800 and $1,400 water bills; much of the confusion due to lack of knowledge, says Mayor
MAYWOOD — Ella Robinson, a Maywood resident who has lived in her house for more than 40 years, quietly approached the podium during the public comments section of a Wednesday, September 24, Legal, License and Ordinance Committee (LLOC) meeting to complain about her water bill.
“Recently I reported to the water department that they had been estimating my bills,” she said. “They sent out a person and he said that the device wasn’t working on the side of the house. He put a new one inside my home and when I got my bill, it was over $1,400. I came back and [someone in the Village’s finance department] took off $400. They say it had been estimated for 13 months. Nobody in Village’s office knew that they’re estimating our bills? Why did they wait so long — estimating me for over a year?”
Mayor Edwenna Perkins, who put the issue on that night’s LLOC agenda, said that she has recently been approached by residents, most of them senior citizens, claiming that they’ve received outlandishly estimated bills, some of which date back a year, for varying amounts — $600, $800 and $1,400 were three that the Mayor named.
The Village may employ estimates to calculate a homeowner’s water bill when the meter isn’t functioning properly. When this happens, residents who receive estimated bills can easily verify the estimate by comparing it to their own reading of the meter.
However, Mayor Perkins noted that most senior citizens who have complained to her about their estimated bills don’t know to do this and when they go to Village Hall to pay the bills, the cashiers don’t tell them that they should.
“Anytime you get an estimated bill, or an E-Bill, you should question it,” the Mayor said. “Unfortunately, many people aren’t aware that they have the right to read their own meters and turn in their own numbers. They just believe what the Village says and when they get estimated bills, they just go and pay them, and the Village employees haven’t been trained to be proactive. Here Ms. Robinson’s been getting her E-Bill for a year and no employee questioned it? When you see a resident with an E-Bill for even two months, you should question it. Tell them what they need to do!”
Maywood’s finance director, Lanya Satchell, said that her department, which is responsible for overseeing water bill collections, affords residents a maximum 20 percent discount on estimated bills, as was the case with Ella Robinson when she got $400 shaved off of her bill.
“If that exceeds 20 percent down-payable [then] I’m able to clear up the two which I offer right off the bat,” she said. On the finance department’s webpage, residents are directed to call the Village if they’ve received an estimated bill.
“If you receive an estimated bill please call the Water Department at: (708) 450-6324; 450-6323 or 450-6313,” the page reads. “If you receive a water bill that is higher than usual, you may call our office at 708-450-6300 to schedule an appointment for a water technician to come to your residence to inspect the metering equipment – you may also need to have your home inspected by a professional plumber to make sure there are no leaks.”
Satchell said that there are a host of reasons why employees may not be as proactive in making residents aware about the measures they can take to correct estimated bills.
“In order to be proactive, you have to have the staff available,” she said, noting that there’s been a shortage in manpower both in her department, which is responsible for collections, and in public works, which is responsible for reading and maintaining the meters. She also said that sometimes, cashiers may not see the whole bill; they may only see the stub portion.
“Ultimately, the homeowners have to be responsible for understanding their bills,” she said.
If residents still have issues with their bills that can’t be resolved through staff, they are referred to the Water Review Commission, who may recommend an appeal to the Board of Trustees. The Board has the power to grant a maximum adjustment to the bills of 50 percent. However, according to Satchell, the review body doesn’t have a quorum [at least four members are required to deliberate], so staff members haven’t been referring them to the Commission. The Commissioners must go through training before they can sit on the review body, Satchell said, “but they haven’t done that.”
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Some members of the Board of Trustees believe that the fact that the Commission isn’t functioning is the Mayor’s fault.
“One of the reasons we don’t have a Water Review Commission is because they were all asked to resign,” said Trustee Ron Rivers.
Last summer, at the beginning of her term, Mayor Perkins sent out a letter to all sitting commissioners requesting their resignation. The Mayor said the move was an attempt to clear a listing of every citizen who voluntarily serves on a committee or commission in Maywood. The beginning and/or end dates for some individuals’ term limits were missing and there were people listed on commissions and committees who had moved out of the community.
“So, in order to put the list back together […] I asked everyone to resign from their position and if they wanted to remain on the committee all they had to do was resubmit their information,” Mayor Perkins said at the time. She also noted that the resubmission form she used was the one used by former Mayor Henderson Yarbrough. The Mayor also said that a majority of the Board has routinely refused to vote in candidates of her choosing to boards such as the Water Review commission. No member of a committee or commission can be voted in unless a majority of the Board approves.
Trustee Audrey Jaycox, however, claimed that the Water Review Commission does have a quorum. The Village’s municipal code stipulates that members of committees and commissions whose terms have expired may nonetheless continue to sit on their respective commissions and committees until their replacements are appointed.
“According to my records here, we have two new members that we just appointed to the Water Review,” she said. “They were appointed June 18, 2014. And we have two members whose terms expire November 19, 2015. So we do have four members on that commission [required for a quorum], so…that commission should be up and running. I think that someone needs to contact those people and let them know that we’re having problems and they need to meet and address some of these issues.”
But this was almost a moot point at that night’s LLOC meeting, since most people complaining about the estimated bills may not even know that the Water Review Commission exists. Ms. Robinson is a case in point. When asked by Trustee Cheryl Ealey-Cross whether or not she knew what the Commission was, Ms. Robinson said no.
Another possible source of the present confusion over estimated water bills is the lack of automatic meter reading technology in some homes. Around 2005/06, according to Satchell, Maywood began utilizing the technology, which collects data about water consumption via equipment such as handheld wireless devices. This means that water meter readers no longer have to physically visit each meter to collect consumption information on which to base water bills, a method that’s supposed to be much more accurate than manual meter readings.
However, Satchell said that approximately one percent of Maywood homes have meters that aren’t amenable to the new technology and thus susceptible to less accurate readings and breakdowns that may lead to estimated bills. She said that those homes didn’t have meters adapted for the new technology because of challenges, such as non-functional shutoff valves, at the time the technology was being installed. Satchell also said that, even though the updated system is in place, it has not been properly maintained, since the Village doesn’t have the manpower. VFP