North Adams residents to receive credit to resolve water, sewer billing error


NORTH ADAMS -- Residents recently overcharged for water and sewer usage will be compensated through a future credit, according to Mayor Richard Alcombright.

And residents receiving bills in August and September, who also would have been overcharged, will see an credit applied on their bill, the mayor said.

The City Council voted in June to raise the city's water rate by 10 percent and sewer fee by 8 percent for fiscal 2015, effective July 1. But the city's July 15 water and sewer bill, which included usage as far back as April 15, used only the increased rate.

The issue was first raised by a city resident who emailed city staff. City Solicitor John DeRosa, whose opinion was sought by the mayor, said last week that the city should not have charged the new, higher rate for water and sewer usage before July 1

The practice of fixing the rate based on the fiscal year -- and not the actual usage period -- has been in place for every rate hike since at least the 1970s, according to city officials.

"It's just what we've always done," Alcombright said. "For us, it's just been the rate gets approved, the rate gets applied."

Rectifying the problem is likely to cost the city -- which recently received emergency municipal aid from the state -- approximately $35,000 in project revenue.

Roughly three-quarters of the city's commercial and residential water and sewer users were slated to be overcharged for their water because of the billing error. The city sends out bills for three months of usage to a different subset of residents and businesses every month. Those on the schedule for a July bill were the first to be overcharged.

To remedy the issue, city officials are working with the city's billing software developer, Alcombright said. The company is attempting to quickly write a program that will automatically enter the abatements into future bills. If those attempts are unsuccessful, the abatements will be entered manually by city staff.

Residents who have not yet paid their July bill are asked to pay it in full, and a credit will be applied to the next quarter's bill. Those who have already paid their July bill will also see a credit, as will people billed in September and August.

"In following years when rates are increased, the city will need to vote to approve either effective on [Sept. 1] or effective with the ‘billing cycles' beginning April 15 of the previous fiscal year," Alcombright said in a statement. "We will continue to look at that procedure."

The mayor did not believe the billing practice had ever been pointed to in any audit during his administration.

"If this was flagged in an audit, it would've been fixed," he said.

To reach Adam Shanks:
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On Twitter: @EagleAdamShanks


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