CARBON CLIFF -- Looking at Scharie Freeman's water bill, you might think she just installed an Olympic-size pool at her duplex.|
When Ms. Freeman opened her January water bill, she was shocked to see her typical bill, which usually ranges between $130 to $170 for three months, had jumped to $3,653.56 for water, garbage and sewer fees.
The water usage on the bill states Ms. Freeman and her 8-year-old grandson who lives with her went through 732,540 gallons over the billing period -- or roughly 100,000 gallons more than what would fill an Olympic-size pool.
In addition to Ms. Freeman's January 2008 bill, the tenant who lives in the rental portion of her side-by-side duplex also received a bill for $614.28.
Even though the bill is a big surprise to Ms. Freeman, village clerk Karen Hopkins said the bill is accurate. The village is willing to work out a payment plan, she said, but the debt is Ms. Freeman's responsibility.
The spike in Ms. Freeman's bill partially stems from the meter in her home -- which records the accurate usage -- and its failure to communicate properly with the outside remote that is read quarterly by the village.
Ms. Hopkins said exterior remotes can report inaccurately for a variety of reasons, including being hit, turned off, temporarily removed, etc. Buildup of minerals also can skew readings.
"A lot of them are over-billed because the outside remote gets shooken up," she said, adding when that happens residents receive a credit.
Ms. Freeman said prior to last month, when the village replaced her water meter because of its age, she had never before had an interior meter reading since she purchased the home in April 1997. When the new meter was installed, the accuracy issue was identified and her bill was adjusted.
According to Ms. Hopkins, the village does not yet have a set schedule for doing interior meter readings and it is working on updating meters in the village with exterior remotes that are able to directly report the interior meter usage.
Ms. Hopkins said she has no record of when an interior meter reading was last done at Ms. Freeman's property, but it could have been more than 25 years ago. If that's the case, Ms. Freeman has only lived in the house for roughly half that time period.
Regardless of that possibility, Ms. Hopkins said state law dictates Ms. Freeman is responsible for the bill because she is the current owner.
Without a more recent interior meter reading, there's no telling how long the outside remote wasn't reporting accurate water usage. The current bill could reflect decades of undetected water usage.
Staff at the village hall said ideally every time a resident receives a water bill, they should verify it with their inside meter to be sure of its accuracy.
"I don't even know how to read a meter," said Ms. Freeman.
A leak which was repaired at Ms. Freeman's property in October 2005 also could be a factor in her sky-high water bill. Ms. Freeman said she believes the leak was repaired quickly and the village stated a record of how much water was lost at that time was not available.
If a significant amount of water was lost at that time, it might just now be showing up on Ms. Freeman's bill more than three years later.
The only other factor Ms. Freeman can think of is that she had one of her adult children and a grandchild living with her for a couple months over the summer. She said their stay wasn't very long and any increased water usage should have showed up on a prior bill.
Whatever the explanation is for the bill, if it is not paid by Jan. 24, the village will increase the amount owed by 10 percent. That would bring Ms. Freeman's portion of the bill to $4,018.92. After that she'd get two late notices with $2.50 service fees on both. If not paid by the end of February, the village could place a lien on the property, which over one year's time would add $725 in interest to the debt.
Water could be shut off at her property if a second lien is filed.
Ms. Freeman said she thinks the village might be padding everyone's water bill and she's put a flier up in the post office to see if others are having similar issues.
"I don't like to get ripped off," she said. "I work hard for what I got and right now I don't have much."
Ms. Freeman raised three children, two of which had special needs, as a single mom and is now raising one grandchild in her home and she's helping another grandchild part-time.
Her career has been interrupted more than once due to health problems. She had to leave her job at ARC as head of housekeeping when chemical inhalation burned her lungs and mouth. She also lost her fight for worker's compensation.
At her next job she lost her job after a fall required surgery and forced her out of work for more than a year and a half. Today she's back to work part-time assisting elderly in their home, but her hours have recently been cut because her client was moved to a nursing home.
Adding to her troubles, recently her car had transmission problems and the furnace in her rental quit working.
Monica Reighard said her sister, Ms. Freeman, has been through the mill. She's working to help her sister contact an attorney and she's inquired about bringing in a private meter reader to get a second opinion. Ms. Reighard said the request was denied by the village because they own the equipment.
"Something has to be done about this," Ms. Reighard said. "If the meters belong to them, then they should be responsible to keep them updated and responsible for making sure they are working."
Attorney Hector Lareau, who practices some municipal law and is not representing Ms. Freeman, echoed that perspective. He said the village likely stands in the same shoes as any other contractor utility provider in the sense that AT&T is responsible for monitoring a users long-distance bill.
"I understand from her perspective this is a big unwelcomed surprise," he said. "On the other hand, the meter that gives the correct reading is the one that gives us the big bill. Somebody used the water, just because it's a surprise that you have to pay for it late in the day doesn't mean you escape liability."
He said when Ms. Freeman purchased her home, there was likely language in the contract that assigned her future house liabilities. On the other hand, he said, "She might be able to go scouting after the person she bought it from and say, 'Hey, some of this is your nickels.'"
From Mr. Lareau's vantage point, he said the village might want to reconsider denying the request for an outside meter to check out the situation.
"We were accidentally whoops wrong all that time and now we know the right answer," he said. "It seems to me they should be willing to step up and prove we have the right answer ... If you are dropping a $3,600 bill on someone, you should be willing to look into it."
Check those water meters Others with water issues?
Scharie Freeman will be speaking with public works officials on Tuesday at 6 p.m. about her water issues. She's looking for others who might be having similar issues to speak out as well. Anyone interested can read her flier in the local post office or attend Tuesday's meeting.
How similar towns keep up with accurate water readings:
Carbon Cliff serves 900 homes. Some homes have interior meters and exterior remotes that can be shooken up or experience other difficulties which can lead to inaccurate readings. The village is working on updating all homes with the exterior remotes that transmits data from the interior directly. The number of homes without updates was not available.
Hampton serves 765 homes. Staff said all homes have exterior remotes that transmits data directly form the interior meter reading. Interior meter readings are not done becuase it is not necessary with these type of meters.
Rapids City serves 450 homes. Staff members say all homes have a remote reader, but the town is working on installing radio reads at every house. Rapids City only has 100 more homes to install the radio equipment, after which time staff can drive past a home and collect needed data.
Moline, IL Details
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