For years, faulty water meters have fooled New Paltz residents into thinking their water usage was less expensive than it actually was. Now, they’re paying the price.
On Feb. 6, angry residents gathered at the joint meeting of the Town and Village Boards, outraged and surprised by the significantly high water bills they received that go back several years.
Perhaps more frightening than the large sums of money they owed was a statement in their most recent bill saying that their water would be turned off if the bill was not paid by a specific deadline.
Some water bill amounts that residents received totaled $500, $2,000 and even $2,800. Some bills date back to four years while others go back much further.
“One 90-year-old lady who is hard of hearing got a bill for $1000 and was up all night wondering whether her water was going to be turned off,” said President of the Cherry Hill Neighborhood Association David Miller, who expected a bill of $71 and instead received a bill over $700.
The Town of New Paltz’s water meters were neglected for years. Most of the water meters dated back to the 1950s and were more than 60 years old.
The accumulated back-bill charges, which affected about 50 properties, were discovered after new internal water meters were installed throughout the town. According to New Paltz Town Supervisor Neil Bettez, 355 meters are being implemented. The town is still in the process of installing the meters, and have about less than 35 meters left to put in.
While the totals of these water bills seem shocking, Bettez explained that these sums, in fact, accurately reflect a resident’s water usage.
Before the installment of new internal meters, water bills were calculated by the external reader. However, many external readers were inaccurate or in some cases nonfunctional, which resulted in residents paying less than they owed for water.
Therefore, the high water bills are the result of a discrepancy between the external readers the town had been using to record and bill water usage, and the internal meters that were taken during the installation process.
External readers will not be used in the future, and instead water usage costs will be determined through the new internal meters, which are cell phone based so officials can get real time water usage transmitted to them cellularly.
“It’s the meter in the basement that’s what measures water usage, and then you have the outside reader which is supposed to reflect what the meter reads and that’s so we don’t have to knock on peoples’ doors and get inside four times a year,” Bettez explained. “It’s more of a convenience thing, but that doesn’t reflect the actual usage. It should, in a perfect world, but they slow down faster than the inside meters because they are exposed to the elements.”
Angered by the lack of notification that they would be back-billed for any discrepancies, members of the Cherry Hill Neighborhood Association have sent a petition to the town asking to waive the discrepancies in the water bill.
“It’s the town’s responsibility to maintain water meters and their external readers as stated in the the town’s general legislation,” said member of the Cherry Hill Neighborhood Association Matthew Friday.
The town’s general legislation that Friday refers to is part of the 137-31 Meters Town of New Paltz General Legislation, which states “any damage which said meter may sustain […] from any external cause will be repaired by the Town and the cost thereof charged to the owner or agent.”
“The code further stipulates that it is the owner’s responsibility to inform the town if the meters are dysfunctional. In my case I attempted to do this several times by informing town water utility employees and leaving multiple messages with the town,” Friday said.
Other residents feel as though they should not have to pay the consequences of being unaware of their actual water usage.
“The bills led them to believe they were being moderate, now they’re being told they were probably being profligate, and they’re being billed retroactively for it,” commented New Paltz resident Steven Greenfield on the New Paltz Community Facebook page. “This feels to me like one of those situations where the billing entity fixes the problem going forward, but has to eat the loss.”
To financially accommodate residents, interest-free payment plans will be worked out for all of the residents affected by these water bills.
“Customers with high bills have every right to feel frustrated about the Town’s process where they received high final bills using the old meters not carefully explained before bills went out,” said Mayor Tim Rogers. “The Town elects and staff have apologized, taken responsibility and are very willing to discuss matters.”
However, Friday pointed out that the interest-free payment plan was only offered after their complaints became public, and residents feel as though this accommodation isn’t enough.
“We feel it’s unfair to penalize individual homeowners and make them pay huge bills for things that were clearly the Town’s fault,” Miller said. “In my case, I have religiously paid the water bill sent to me by the Town for the last 50 years, and I resent everything about the way this bill was handled.”