Monday, August 13, 2018 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
Featured image: Linda Reedy, a Maywood resident and water commission member said in May that her bills were mysteriously high. | Shanel Romain
During an overcast morning in May, Linda Reedy sat flummoxed at a dining room table inside of her Maywood home, utility bills dating back to November 2017 flanking her elbows. The last bill she’d received, from March 19 through April 19, had her almost at her wit’s end. It showed water charges totaling $913.08.
“There is no way three or four people can use $900 worth of water in one month,” Reedy said, referencing the number of adults she said currently reside in her home. “I’d actually say three-and-a-half because my daughter is a flight attendant and she’s gone 15 days out of the month.”
Reedy said that since November, she’s received utility bills with water charges that are mysteriously high, including $639 in November and $521 in January. She said she checked her basement water meter and it didn’t appear to be broken.
There is no way, she said, for anyone to steal water from the outside. She even installed a new, energy efficient toilet last year — to complement the home’s energy efficient washer and dryer units.
And yet the high water charges kept coming.
Robert Jones, who owns a single family home in Maywood, is similarly burdened. The village wants him to pay for what, he believes, are the sins of his former tenants — roughly $3,500 in delinquent water payments owing to the fact that, from 2015 until 2016, Jones’ former tenants paid their water bills with checks that bounced at least five times.
Jones said that he wants to know why the village would continue to accept checks for water payments from people who had a history of bounced payments.
“The village should have flagged that account after they received the first NSF check,” Jones said during an interview in May.
Reedy and Jones are on the front lines of Maywood’s battle to stay afloat during a perfect storm of high water fees, antiquated financial systems, old and deteriorating infrastructure and corruption.
That’s because not only are Reedy and Jones residents of Maywood who are confronting expensive water bills — they’re also members of the Maywood Water Review Commission.
Back in May the commission — the entity responsible for hearing the appeals of residents who may have disputes with village officials about how much they’ve been charged for water — had only met once in the last 12 months.
At that meeting, held March 7, the commission considered two appeals, both from Jones and Reedy, who recused themselves when each of their cases was heard.
After appealing, Reedy and Jones both worked out arrangements with the village, but those arrangements, both said, don’t resolve their problems — or the problems of other residents who haven’t had the opportunity to appeal to the commission.
In interviews conducted throughout May, commission members said that the fact that no property owners in Maywood have been before them to appeal the billing decisions of village employees indicates that too few residents know that their right to appeal even exists — a problem, they said, that village officials have exacerbated by not adequately informing residents about the option.
That’s troubling, the commissioners argued, because many more residents in Maywood could be unfairly paying for a variety of systemic problems that are rife within the village’s water system — from antiquated billing methods to a lack of enforcement mechanisms for dealing with delinquent accounts.
Maywood Village Manager Willie Norfleet Jr., however, responded in a May interview that the fact that few residents appeal to the commission indicates that village officials are resolving billing issues before they get to that point. He also said that he and his staff are working toward resolving some of the systematic problems that are plaguing the village’s water system.
Over the past five years, Maywood’s water system has been hit by scandal, deluged by citizen complaints about high water bills and has played a starring role in numerous high profile investigative articles.
In 2014, Loretta Robinson, the water commission’s president, told board members during a meeting that she’s “never seen such a circus of water department problems.” Robinson, Jones and Maywood Mayor Edwenna Perkins all complained that year of residents, particularly senior citizens, showing up with bills ranging from $400 to $1,300 — many of them estimated bills.
At the time, Lanya Satchell, the village’s finance director and the employee responsible for supervising utility bill collections, said that the public works department, which is responsible for sending out people to read the meters and for maintaining parts of the village’s aging water infrastructure, was undermanned.
Part of that staffing shortage may have been attributed to the forced resignations of several village employees who were entangled in an instance of fraudulent billing.
In 2013, former village manager William Barlow tapped an outside firm to conduct a forensic audit that showed that Lorraine Waller, a water department clerk, had misapplied 31 customer payments totaling $60,598.79 — nearly $27,000 of that representing payments credited to the accounts of “village employees and/or affiliates.”
At least five village employees were either terminated or resigned, one of whom, a public works employee, was eventually reinstated after filing a wrongful termination lawsuit. The village settled with that employee for around $106,000 in back pay.
But the wasted taxpayer money attributed to corruption over the years likely pales in comparison to money that’s been going down the drain due to the village’s aging water delivery infrastructure, which is plagued with leakage.
An investigative series published by the Chicago Tribune in October 2017 showed that the average monthly water bill for 5,000 gallons of water charged to Maywood residents last year was $72.61 — higher than the rate for 156 of 162 municipalities that provided the Tribune with information.
According to the Tribune report, a large reason that Maywood has such a high water rate is because of aging pipes that transport water from its source in Lake Michigan to residents’ homes. The old infrastructure translates into massive amounts of water that leaks, busted pipes and water main breaks, among other incidents.
As of 2014, according to the Tribune, more than 60 percent of Maywood’s reported 62 miles of pipes were at least 61 years old. Another 16 percent of pipes were older than 40 years. In 2016, Maywood reported losing around 39 percent of the water that it buys from Chicago due to leaky pipes and broken water mains.
An analysis by Edwin Hancock Engineering, Maywood’s contracted engineering firm, put the amount of water lost through leaks and broken water mains closer to 50 percent. The state standard set by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is 12 percent.
In May, Norfleet dived even deeper into the village’s massive water woes, laying out the challenges in stark detail.
“We have two major issues that exist with our water,” he said. “One is back-payment. We’re hovering at maybe $1.7 million for delinquent water bills. Another is water loss, which accounts for $1.8 million a year.”
Norfleet said that at any given time, more than 50 percent of water, sewer and garbage accounts in Maywood are past due. In March alone, village data shows, 2,721 accounts were penalized because of past due payments. Water, sewer and garbage penalties for that month totaled nearly $35,000, with late water charges accounting for around $27,000 of that total.
Norfleet said that the village is getting better at tracking key information such as the total amount of delinquent penalties residents accrue each month — information that the village didn’t regularly monitor before he was hired in 2015.
But he conceded that he and his staff have a lot more work to do. The manager said that, although the village’s water infrastructure is old, it can’t be the only reason why the village pays Chicago and Melrose Park $1.8 million for water that it doesn’t actually get.
That’s a discrepancy that won’t go away even if every property owner started paying their bills on time and all of the village’s water leaks and breaks were plugged, he said.
Norfleet explained that the village is still trying to “reconcile the amount of water that” is being sent to Maywood from Chicago, where it originates in Lake Michigan, and Melrose Park, which delivers the water from Chicago.
According to village data, the Maywood pays Melrose Park a debt service cost of $630,848 each year to maintain water infrastructure and $671,580 each year for the cost of delivery.
In January, members of Maywood’s Board of Trustees discussed the possibility of establishing a commission of experts and community stakeholders that would explore the feasibility of tapping into a water source in Maywood that village officials said runs directly underneath the Prairie Path and flows through to DuPage County, which would mean that Maywood would no longer be reliant on Melrose Park for transmitting its water.
“Approximately half of the water we’re buying from Chicago, we’re not billing for,” Norfleet said. “Where is the missing water?”
That’s what Reedy wanted to know. VFP
Part two will be published on Friday.
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