Mass. city sends out enormous water bills, files liens against property owners

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The city of Brockton, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, has created a wave storm of anger with residents over its failed meter-reading system, which has stuck residents with water bills as high as $100,000.

Residents in Brockton, Mass. were shocked to receive supplemental water bills, such as this one sent to Ayanna YancyCato

Thousands of the residents, just receiving their third quarter property tax bills, found that the city attached liens against their properties for the amount of the disputed unpaid water bills.

Many Brockton homeowners refused to pay the water back-charges, after receiving huge bills for what the city says are undercharges accumulated over the years, because the city only billed residents based on estimates.

Ayanna YancyCato, a single mother, received a $100,000 bill which was knocked down to $17,000 after she disputed the charges, although the revised amount is still beyond her ability to pay. “I’m beyond angry. I’m frustrated and hurt,’’ she said.

Many residents have held off paying the outsized bills, pending the completion of an audit by the Abrahams Group of Framingham, Mass. They were shocked to learn that the city moved to attach the unpaid water charges on their property tax bills.

Residents are calling on Mass. Attorney general Martha Coakley to investigate the Brockton Water Commission, saying it violated the state’s Open Meeting Law, because it had key meetings behind closed doors and censured a board member who had spoken to the press. In a letter sent to Coakley, residents asked the state to investigate billing and management policy at the utility.

“Please understand that this Open Meeting Law violation is just a piece of the puzzle,” they wrote. “The residents of Brockton have been desperately trying for one year to work with the Water Commission to understand their billing systems, to rectify our obviously incorrect consumption reports, to stop liens from being placed on homes of those who have not paid the ‘under-estimated’ bills that are in dispute.”

In all, some 6,500 lien notices were sent out, although some were for items unrelated to the water bill fiasco, such as unpaid trash or sewer bills.

Residents are angry because they say that no one ever came to their homes to check the meters, and that they always paid their bills on time. The city says that many meters were not read because residents did not provide access to the meters.

Bill and Dona Costa say that’s not true, and cannot afford to pay their $4,000 bill, since they are struggling just to keep the mortgage current. They’re afraid that the mortgage company will pay the lien to protect its interest in the property and then charge them a higher mortgage payment, which they cannot afford. They are worried that they may lose their home over the matter.

Bob Ford also disputes the city’s claim, saying no one ever came to his house to read his meter. He’s leading the charge against the city after receiving a $12,000 bill. Both Ford and the Costas say that when they complained about the supplemental bills, the city came to their homes and replaced their meters, erasing all access to the old data.

Jeff Smith said he received a supplemental bill on his 3 year-old home, which was reduced to $2,400 after he told the utility that he worked for the local newspaper. “They offered me a payment plan at 14 percent interest over 36 months, and if I refused, they would put a lien on my house.” He said, “I said I would see them in court.”

more in the The Boston Globe

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