TWW starts water shut-offs Monday for unpaid bills

Starting Monday, faucets will run dry as the Tisbury Water Works (TWW) begins water service shut-offs at properties on a long list of customers whose accounts are delinquent. Payment plans, common in the past, are no longer an option. Service will be restored only after payment is made in full.

Yesterday, water department personnel began posting blue shut-off notices at delinquent account owners’ properties. Reminder letters about overdue bills were sent on March 19 and twice since then. In addition, TWW announced the impending water shut-offs in an advertisement in last week’s Times.

As of Tuesday, TWW’s list included 130 delinquent accounts, in amounts from $136.50 to $2,598. The list includes ratepayers who failed to return a second payment due in January for the town’s annual fiscal year 2010 water bill, distributed in July 2009, as well as others who have not paid several annual bills.

The amounts owed for the top 10 delinquent accounts are $2,598; $1,873.35; $1,340; $1,301.90; $1,289.25; $1,279.25; $993.20; $933.55; $875.15; and $828. A complete list of delinquent account holder names and property locations is available at mvtimes.com.

TWW charges $333 a year for residential water, for July 1 through June 30. The charge is a flat rate for up to the first 40,000 gallons used, according to information available on the town’s website. That includes a minimum charge for water and a base charge for delivering the water through the TWD system.

All accounts pay the flat rate bill, regardless of the amount of time a home or business is occupied or how many of the first 40,000 gallons of water are used. An excess charge is assessed for use above 40,000 gallons.

Ratepayers have the option of paying in full or making two payments. The first installment, half the flat rate charges plus any excess, was due August 31, 2009. The second installment, which includes a $5 service charge, was due January 31, 2010. Payments not received by January 31 incurred a $10 late fee.

“We hired a consultant, Doug Gardner, to review water rates and procedures, and he suggested we get more aggressive in going after delinquent accounts,” water commission chairman David Schwab said in a phone conversation with The Times last week.

Mr. Gardner is president of Pioneer Consulting Group in Woodbury, Conn. Among its services, his company specializes in water rate studies, sewer rate studies, and enterprise fund accounting systems.

The water commissioners sought Mr. Gardner’s advice after TWW became a new town department in June 30, 2009, operating as an enterprise fund under Massachusetts state law starting July 1, last year. Voters amended the TWW’s original 1905 charter, at a special town meeting in April 2009.

Lawrence Bombera of Lorinc Consulting, who evaluated TWW and provided support during its reorganization last year, recommended Mr. Gardner because of his extensive knowledge of water rates nationwide.

“Mr. Gardner says we have to look at ourselves as a utility,” Mr. Schwab explained. “If you don’t pay your electric bill, telephone bill, cable bill, they get shut off.”

Several months ago, TWW had more than $175,000 in outstanding bills. As a result of the water department’s latest collection efforts, current delinquency has been reduced from about $127,000 to $75,000 as of May 1, Mr. Schwab said. However, Mr. Gardner had advised TWW should have less than five to 10 percent outstanding, or ideally zero, from uncollected revenue.

Until 2009, TWW operated under its charter as an independent entity. Revenues were self-generated through water use fees paid by ratepayers rather than taxpayers.

As a town department and Tisbury’s public water utility, TWW is now subject to all town bylaws pertaining to salaries and benefits for management and union personnel and voter approval for projects, including those funded by surplus revenue.

Although TWW’s financial operations were transferred to town hall, the water commissioners continue to set water rates, hire and fire employees, and run the water system’s day-to-day operations. The commissioners include Mr. Schwab, Elmer Silva, and Roland Miller.

Timothy Sylvia currently serves as the interim superintendent. TWW will be advertising next week to fill the superintendent’s position.

“With the new enterprise system we have now, it’s important we get all the revenue we can,” Mr. Schwab said. “We don’t have the luxury of using our surplus funds to compensate for outstanding debt.”

Besides the issue of lost revenue, he added, “I can’t stress enough that it’s not fair to people who do pay their bill every year.”

In the past, TWW offered delinquent account holders a payment plan before terminating their water service. That option is no longer available.

“Those payment plans have failed miserably in the past, so our consultant suggested that we not do them any more,” Mr. Schwab said.

TWW administrative assistant Patti Diamond agreed.

“We were happy to work with them, but found with a payment plan, the majority of people don’t make the payments,” she said in a phone call with The Times, adding that, “Some people are on the delinquent account list every single year.”

As Ms. Diamond pointed out, other Island towns also have policies regarding water bills and shut-offs for delinquent accounts.

“No one wants to shut off anyone’s water, but we’ve had a lot of outstanding receivables,” she said. “Some people get in the habit of not paying and then they can’t catch up.”

TWW adheres to Massachusetts General Laws in regard to exceptions to water shut-offs in homes occupied by a seriously ill person or an infant under 12 months. In a case of serious illness, the water department requires written verification by a physician, and for infants, verification of age with a birth certificate.

As a result of the poor economy, Mr. Schwab said, home foreclosures have compounded the delinquent account problem this fiscal year.

“With foreclosures, banks used to tidy up outstanding utility bills and tax bills, but now, when banks take over, those bills are left unpaid,” he said.

TWW’s most delinquent account, HSBC Bank USA National Associates of Wilmington, Del., owes $2,598 for water service as trustee of a home it foreclosed on Edgartown Road.

Mr. Schwab said that in some cases, landlords involved in foreclosure procedures are still collecting rent from tenants but not paying their bills.

“We had a couple of people come in and pay bills themselves because the owners of the houses disappeared, left the country,” he said.

Tisbury treasurer and tax collector Tim McLean is working with TWW on options for collecting payments. “If we don’t get outstanding bills paid, there is a provision in the law that we can attach the water bills to real estate tax bills,” Mr. Schwab explained. “We’re trying to make it fair for everybody.”

The water commissioners plan to change TWW’s billing process, to make it easier for ratepayers to keep track of water bills and due dates.

“We looked at the possibility of monthly billing, which is too expensive, so we wouldn’t reap any benefits,” Mr. Schwab said. “But we feel twice a year might be helpful to people.”

The delinquent account list available on The Times’ website includes updates through noon yesterday. Last week, after The Times requested the list, which is a public record, Ms. Diamond said a few people who stopped in to pay their water bills told her they did so because they heard a rumor their names might be in the paper.

The TWW offices, located at 325 West Spring Street, are open weekdays from 8 am to 4 pm. For more information, call 508-696-4230. After payment is made in full, service will be restored to delinquent account holders during regular business hours only, on weekdays from 8 am to 3 pm.

Public hearing on water rates

A public hearing on Tisbury Water Works’ new rate structure is scheduled at 5 pm on Monday, May 17, at the Tisbury Senior Center.