Egremont weighs hiring contractor for water billing


EGREMONT -- The Select Board is considering hiring a private firm to run the Egremont Water Co., which has been the subject of two recent billing problems.

During a meeting Monday on the most recent problem, which resulted from incorrect use of the billing software program, board members said they want to explore how much it would cost to contract the operation of the plant.

"We are looking for a firm to potentially take over the water plant, including maintenance and operations and billing and accounting," Select Board Chairman Bruce Turner said after the meeting.

The Egremont Water Co. is currently run by one full-time and one part-time employee and overseen by an elected three-person Water Commission. Monday's meeting comes on the heels of the latest incident, in which employee Jack Muskrat was incorrectly reading meters.

To rectify the problem, the town is installing a new billing program, which is expected to be installed by June. Water bills are expected to increase.

"Everyone is projecting user bills to go up," Selectwoman Mary Brazie said.

The Select Board's recommendation to contract management services was met with approval from Water Commission Chairman Steve Agar, who said he was unsure how it would impact the company's two employees.

"I think it's an interesting concept," Agar said. "I would like to do more research on it. I am open-minded on how to make it work better. I just don't know much about it."

Muskrat, who was stripped of his meter reading duties last week following the revelation about his mistake, was pressed by Selectman Charlie Flynn on when was the last time he was certain water meter usage was correctly input into the billing program.

"I'd have to go through the book, I don't know," said Muskrat, who described himself as, "not a computer genius."

Flynn was the lone voice calling on Muskrat to resign.

"Jack, I like you but I think it's time to move on," Flynn said.

Turner declined to comment on whether Muskrat would be disciplined, saying further verification is needed that there is a billing problem. The town

"We still need a licensed operator on weekends, holidays, and when Jim is not there," Turner said. "That is the only reason Jack is an employee because there is not another licensed operator available. Period."

This is the second significant billing problem that has emerged at the Egremont Water Co. this year.

In January, an audit revealed that customers have been undercharged for years -- a total of $104,557 from fiscal 2011 through 2013 -- because monthly bills were not sent out. The result is a budget deficit instead of a surplus in each year, according to the audit.

In 2011, eight bills were sent out; nine bills were sent in 2012; and 10 bills in 2013. Town Hall has assumed the responsibilities of billing in fiscal 2014 and the town is on track to send monthly bills. The audit identifies other problems that include old meters providing incorrect water usage.

During the meeting, the water company's fiscal 2015 budget was also discussed. With more than two months left before the end of the fiscal year, company is currently under budget having spent $235,300 of a $256,000 budget. The water budget includes a $70,108 town subsidy.

The town regularly provides a subsidy. In fiscal 2013, the town provided a $79,720 subsidy, and a $73,000 subsidy is proposed for fiscal 2015.

To reach John Sakata:

or (413) 496-6240.

On Twitter: @jsakata


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