Fifty dollars here, $53 there. So it went for years when Chuck DeWald paid the quarterly water bills for his summer home in Canandaigua, N.Y. Then, one day last December, a bill for $6,332.22 arrived in his mailbox.
Fifty dollars here, $53 there. So it went for years when Chuck DeWald paid the quarterly water bills for his summer home in Canandaigua, N.Y.
Then, one day last December, a bill for $6,332.22 arrived in his mailbox. He couldn’t believe it.
There was no way he had used 1.4 million gallons of water between May 2006 and September 2007, he said. No way. So DeWald set to work preparing his case. He hired a lawyer and consulted experts to prepare for a June 13 hearing with Acting City Manager Kay James that lasted more than five hours. By late July, James received a ruling from James: “There is no cause to adjust the water bill.”
DeWald probably won’t appeal the decision, he said, but he’s not hiding his frustration.
“They stole $6,332 from me and then they had the legal muscle to get away with it,” he said.
James, who made the decision, said it’s not impossible for a leak to cause that much water to flow through a house. The hearing was held, and the decision was made, she said.
“We have to assume the water was used, because it went through the meter and we have no evidence that it was defective,” James said.
'This is so wrong'
For DeWald, the issue isn’t the $6,332. He paid that in December, after learning the bill would leap to $7,282 if it wasn’t paid on time (the city did, however, extend the pay-by date a few weeks). To DeWald, this is about accountability. And it’s about what might happen if another city resident, say someone living paycheck to paycheck, got stuck with a similar bill.
“I can survive this,” said DeWald, a business owner and retired professor of engineering and management. “But this is so wrong and so arrogant.”
It all started in December, when the bill first arrived at DeWald’s primary residence in East Amherst, N.Y., a suburb northeast of Buffalo. He was quickly on the phone with Canandaigua City Councilman Val Fenti, who represents Ward 2, which includes the Rosepark development, the site of DeWald’s summer home. Fenti advised him to call City Hall.
His involvement was limited, Fenti said, because people in DeWald’s situation have to follow a process set by the state. The hearing, run by James, is the correct place to deal with the issue, he said.
“He thought I should be able to make the problem go away,” said Fenti. “That can’t take place.”
Fenti noted that the bill covered more than a year’s worth of usage — 535 days, according to James. During that time, DeWald never submitted his meter reading to the city, so an estimated use, based on previous reads, was billed to him every three months. DeWald’s failure to read the meter, Fenti said, was part of the problem.
“It’s not as if there wasn’t some neglect,” Fenti said.
The councilman noted that if the meter had been read more regularly, DeWald might have noticed a leak earlier.
The issue has been further complicated by the old water meter that was involved; the assessment came as the city wrapped up a three-year upgrade of all meters to a newer variety that doesn’t require residents to collect the usage information. The new models rely on radio technology, so city workers can capture the reading from outside the home. DeWald’s readings came from one of the old models.
The old meter featured prominently in DeWald’s defense at the city hearing. Water department workers did not ask him to verify the reading on the old meter before removing it, he said, so he had no proof it had been read accurately. The city sent out the meter to be inspected in early 2008, to ensure that it was working properly. The inspector said it was. DeWald doubted the accuracy of the test, however, as the inspectors received only one of the meter’s two components.
In her final ruling, James stated that, at DeWald’s request, the meter was sent for inspection a second time. Both components were found to be functioning accurately, she said. And finally, the city sent out the meter again to see if it was possible that two numbers on the meter had somehow rolled over instead of one, making for an inaccurate read. The manufacturer deemed the meter accurate within 2 percent.
DeWald asserted that it was highly unlikely so much water could pass through his pipes, according to the plumber he consulted. If more than 9,000 gallons per day went through his home, the condensation would show on his pipes and tiles would rise up from the force, DeWald said.
Nationwide, the average household water use is 90,000 gallons per year, James said. The city water rate is $2.57 per 1,000 gallons of water, according to the 2008 budget. The meter reading is used to calculate both water and sewer bills.
Just a leak?
Leaks can emerge throughout the home, from garden hoses to toilets, said Tom Maniuszko, president of the New York State Association of Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors. And leaks can form underground, he said, often going unnoticed — until the water bill arrives.
In a letter to DeWald’s lawyer dated Jan. 30, 2008, James stated that the 1.4 million gallons seemed “exorbitant.” However, she went on to write that a continuous leak, such as through a toilet, would expend 2,616 gallons per day, or 235,440 gallons over 90 days.
DeWald was adamant that “there was absolutely no leak.” The plumber he consulted confirmed that, DeWald said, when he met with city Water Supervisor Ron Raymond. Through his secretary, Raymond declined to comment for this article.
DeWald stressed his diligence in issues of home maintenance. “If I had a leak in my house I would repair it instantaneously,” DeWald said.
In DeWald’s case, the bills returned to his normal minimum use following the high assessment in December, though DeWald did nothing to repair a leak, he said. Maniuszko said leaks can occasionally “fix themselves” by sealing up with rust.
“It’s few and far between, but it happens,” he said.
But even if that does occur, the temporary seal will likely break eventually, Maniuszko added.
Jim Hecker, the highway superintendent for the town of Canandaigua, said such disputes arise occasionally in the town. His first move, he said, is to go check out the home with the homeowner, searching for a leak. If the homeowner still disputes the bill, he said, they will investigate the meter.
But more often than not, he said, a faulty meter will read slower or stop completely, resulting in a bill that’s lower than what would be accurate. Of DeWald’s bill, Hecker said, “it sounds excessive, by a lot.”
Laying down the law
James cited a city ordinance that prevents any bill alteration “unless a preponderance of the evidence” proves that it was erroneous. DeWald said the city took a “very legalistic approach” aimed at protecting its cash inflow. James, however, said the strictness was justified.
“I think it’s intentional the ordinance is written that way, to avoid any potential for giving away public services,” she said.
James said she knew of only one other instance of the city adjusting a water bill.
DeWald is left to ponder a fight that consumed him, off and on, for more than half a year.
“This has siphoned off a tremendous amount of my energy, a fair amount of my money, and it has been unpleasant,” he said.
As for the city, though noting that she was constrained by the ordinance, the acting city manager admitted that questions linger.
In her final response, James said, “Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be a ready explanation for where the water could have gone.”
Contact Daily Messenger writer Margaret Poe at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 322, or at email@example.com.