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4:40 AM Mon, Jan. 21st

Water bills raise concerns for Prescott customers

PRESCOTT - When Prescott homeowner Warren Scott opened his April water bill from the City of Prescott, he said he was astonished to see the total.

In just a month or so, the total had jumped from the $30 range to more than $4,000.

Scott said he contacted the city's utility department, but could get no good answers on the reason for the excessive bill.

"They couldn't explain it," Scott said Thursday in a telephone interview. "We don't even live in the house; it's a vacation home."

Scott maintains that he did nothing different in May, and the bill was back down to normal levels. "I think it's faulty meters," he said of the April anomaly.

Although Prescott officials say they cannot discuss specific water accounts, they note that the city deals with more than 100 complaints about excessive water bills each year.

In fact, the city has a provision in effect to deal with just such circumstances.

When Prescott implemented a tiered water-rate system several years ago, Budget and Finance Director Mark Woodfill said then-City Manager Steve Norwood opted to include a provision to help citizens deal with one-time excessive bills.

Because the tiered system penalizes high water users with gradually increasing per-gallon rates, Woodfill said the provision allows customers a one-time credit that covers one-half of an excessive bill.

Woodfill and Utility Billing Supervisor Denise Moore reported that the city gets 100 to 120 requests each year for the one-time credit - a number that they say is not inordinately high, considering the 22,800 total water accounts.

The requests range from bills of as little as $200, to bills for thousands of dollars. The highest excessive bill so far: $14,500.

Because of the potential for truly excessive amounts, Moore said city employees regularly caution customers about using their one-time credit for bills totaling $200 or $300.

It was just that situation that affected Scott's account. He said he was stuck with the entire $4,153 bill in April 2012, because he already had used his credit for an earlier $300 bill.

Although Scott said he ultimately paid the entire $4,153 bill because he faced a situation of "work something out or they would shut off my water," he said he plans to continue to pursue the matter.

"The city hasn't heard the last of me," Scott said, noting that he plans to file a "justice claim" over the matter.

Just this past month, the city received another, similar challenge to its policy on excessive water bills. A customer who faced a $2,100 bill for a busted irrigation line complained in a series of emails about the city's policy of paying just one-half of the excessive bill.

The customer, who noted that the home was a rental, maintained that the city should forgive a larger portion of the bill on a hardship basis.

But Woodfill said paying all or most of excessive bills would result in a situation in which the rest of the city's water customers would, in effect, be stuck with the tab.

"There is only so much we can do," he said of the claims of hardship.

Once the water goes through the meter, Woodfill said, it becomes the responsibility of the water customer. "We do incur cost," he said. "If (the city) pays more, the rest of the citizens have to pay."

The city operates its water utility as an "enterprise fund," which means that the revenue must cover the expenses.

Moore said the biggest culprits in excessive water use often are leaking irrigation systems and faulty toilets.

For residents who want to ensure that they will not encounter such issues when they are away from home, Moore said a simple shut-off valve, which stops the water from going through the meter, is available. The city does not install such devices, but Moore said her department notifies customers that plumbers can do the installation.

Although the cost of such devices reportedly vary greatly because of the different depths of water meters, Kim Gagnon, manager of The Plumbing Store, estimated a "ballpark" cost of $300 to $400.

She pointed out, however, that some residents choose not to shut off the water for their homes, because they want to continue irrigating their landscaping while they are away from home.

Scott maintains that the city should have a way of letting customers know about high water use while it is occurring.

"They don't have a system for alerting people about excessive water use until after the fact," he said. "I think somebody's asleep at the switch."

Moore pointed out that city workers check the meters just once a month and alert customers if they see something unusual at that time.

Woodfill urged customers to be proactive if they hear or see water leaks in their systems.

"We're trying to help people," he said. "But once it goes through their meter, it's their water."