‘A Perfect Storm’ for Billerica Water Bills
BILLERICA -- When Darlene Torre took a look at her most recent water and sewer bill she was in for some sticker shock.
The town billed her $275 for her single family home, up from her usual bill of about $140, she said.
Granted, the bill covered usage from Dec. 28 to July 2, about two months more than her typically tri-annual bill. However, she believed the numbers still didn’t add up, so she gave a call to the town’s billing department.
She wasn’t alone.
In the week since residents started receiving their water and sewer bills, the town has fielded over 300 concerned calls from people questioning the numbers, said Town Manager John Curran.
He said several factors led to the most recent round of bills that were either far over or far under the amount residents expected.
“I guess you could call it like a perfect storm,” Curran said.
First, the town has replaced 8,500 of the 13,000 existing water meters with smart-meters, which have a wireless radio read program.
The $4 million project approved amid some controversy at spring Town Meeting last year, was meant to place everyone on the same four month billing cycle. When town employees had to do readings, house by house, billing everyone for the same period was impossible, according to Curran.
However, as the meters go in -- a process which is expected to extend into early 2019 -- individual billing periods could be either abbreviated or lengthened depending on the timing of the installation, he said.
The town has multiple tiers for water and sewage usage, with the rate increasing between tiers from one cent to 35 cents per 100 cubic feet. People billed for more than four months who used more than 2,000-square-cubic-feet of water could be eligible for a bill adjustment, according to Curran. Residents can call the water billing department by dailing 978-671-1313, then chosing option 4.
Second, the Board of Selectmen voted to increase water and sewage rates in April. These are listed as fiscal year 2019 rates on the town’s website and billing materials.
For a resident who uses 2,000-cubic-feet of water or less, the rate increased nine cents to $2.94 per 100-cubic-square-feet. Sewer rates for the same resident would increased 31 cents to $4.39 per 100-cubic-square-feet.
For the past several years, water rates have increased by three percent annually and sewer rates have increased by six to seven percent to pay for improvements to infrastructure, according to Curran.
Both Torre and Dan Burns, a former selectman, said they were charged the fiscal year 2019 rate for readings taken before July 2018, the start of the new fiscal year.
“I don’t even see how they can even legally bill it that way,” said Torre, who is also a member of the Billerica School Committee.
Curran said this is consistent with past years and not a billing mistake.
“That’s how its always been done,” he said.
He said the bills sent out a week after the Board of Selectmen’s April vote charged the fiscal year 2018 rate, but the bills sent out in August charged the fiscal year 2019 rate.
Both the new rate and water usage tier system wouldn’t increase the bill by more than a few dollars, Curran said. As an example, he said a homeowner who consumes 3,000-cubic-square-feet during a billing period exceeding four months would be eligible for a $12.10 adjustment.
Resident Doreen Healy said her bill, which covers November through July, launched her into a higher tier. She argued it shouldn’t be left to the resident to notice the charge.
“We shouldn’t have to call them,” she said. “They should be fixing them across the board.”
Residents also consume more water during the summer, which could contribute to the higher than average bills, Curran said.
Burns said he is frustrated by the billing, particularly with the new smart-meters, which he said were introduced to solve problems, not create them.
“Why are we not succeeding in the new program yet?” he said. “We should be seeing progress.”
Curran said this “transitional period” is expected to continue through the next two billing cycles.
“The goal is to make the timing more consistent,” he said.
Compared to surrounding communities, Curran said the town’s sewer and water rate is low and unlike Burlington does not have a minimum charge.
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins