Last week, Tisbury Water Works, an independent municipal department that supplies water to hundreds of town customers, began shutting off water to overdue accounts. In a departure from past practice, the utility provided no physical notice to residents of the affected properties that a shutoff was imminent.
On October 17, the utility shut off water to about 30 residential water customers. Donald and Kathleen Brown, parents of three small children, returned to their West Spring Street home by chance Wednesday afternoon to find department personnel shutting off the water. Renters, the couple had no way to know that their off-Island landlord had not paid the water bill.
Later that day, the Browns attended a previously scheduled meeting of the water works board of directors. After hearing the Browns’ story, board members instructed Paul Wohler, water works superintendent, to stop scheduled water shutoffs to 57 more properties, until posting a notice on the properties.
“We need to revisit the policy,” board chairman David Schwab said. “For the people who are remaining, we need to let them know that a shutoff is imminent.”
“We can’t go through a repeat of this,” board member Roland Miller said. “That’s not fair to the customer.”
Too much work
Mr. Wohler told the commissioners that the change in policy was necessitated by an unusual number of delinquent bills, more than 300, this summer.
Mr. Wohler at first said it would take three weeks to post a notice on all the delinquent properties. Then he said it would take more than a week, then he said it would take a week.
“There were too many to go door to door,” Mr. Wohler said. “When we saw the numbers, we thought, ‘this will take three weeks just to do.’”
Five separate times during the brief meeting, Mr. Wohler insisted that posting a physical notice at each delinquent property, as the water works has done in the past, was not feasible.
“Going to 300 houses in a town with no house numbers is a week’s work,” Mr. Wohler said.
Water, water… not everywhere
Mr. Brown, who works as a landscaper, returned to his West Spring Street home October 17 by chance, because his three children were getting out of school early.
“We found someone there to shut the water off,” Mr. Brown told the water works board members at their meeting later that afternoon. “My landlord had not paid the bill. What if I hadn’t been home? There was no note on the door, no nothing. I’ve got three little kids. If I had got home at 5:30 pm, would anyone come out and turn it on? It didn’t seem just to me.”
Mr. Wohler told Mr. Brown there is a fee to turn the water back on, and the water department policy is that they do not make calls after business hours to turn water back on.
Mr. Brown said he paid the water bill, even though he is not responsible for the charges under his lease, to avoid the water shut off. He called the water board members’ attention to Massachusetts General Law 165, section 11E. “No water company shall shut off the flow of water to any residential building in which the occupant thereof is not the customer of record of said company,” the law states, without “providing notice to each affected dwelling unit in a manner prescribed by regulation of the department.”
Mr. Wohler said the Tisbury Water Works is not bound by that law. “It says water company,” Mr. Wohler said. “We’re not a water company. We’re a municipal department.” He said the water works provided advance notice by publishing the list of delinquent property owners in local newspapers on August 29.
Mr. Brown insisted that he had no way to know his landlord had not paid the bill, and that it was unfair to shut off water to homes where renters were not responsible for water charges. Mr. Wohler insisted that the water works did nothing wrong.
“The minimum bill is $226 for six months. How much is Comcast cable?” Mr. Wohler asked Mr. Brown directly.
“I don’t know,” Mr. Brown replied. “I can’t afford cable.”
In a telephone interview following the meeting, Mr. Brown said he left the meeting feeling bullied, and regretted not asking for his payment back. He said finding personnel about to turn off his water off was upsetting for him and his family, and became even more disturbing when he went to the water works office to ask for an explanation. He said he got a rude reception from Mr. Wohler and water works assistant Patricia Diamond.
“It was just like talking to a stone wall, not our problem, we’re trying to run a business here,” Mr. Brown said of the attitude he encountered.
At the water works board meeting, Mr. Wohler and Ms. Diamond strongly denied that characterization of their response.
“That’s absolutely false,” Mr. Wohler said. “Just because you don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean you’re rude. He was arguing that it was our responsibility.”
Mr. Brown said the explanation that there were too many delinquent property owners to post a physical notice on each property does not hold water.
“The excuse just didn’t bear weight with me. It seems like a cop-out,” Mr. Brown said. “I do things all the time at my job where I grumble, but I do them. It’s almost like they wanted an easy button on this, and there wasn’t one. You just have to do the right thing.”
He was also less than satisfied with the actions of the water board members.
“They seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say,” Mr. Brown said. “They were very sympathetic and even apologetic. But at the end of the day, I didn’t think they had firm control of what was going on. They should have said call everyone back, turn on everyone’s water, and we’ll start fresh.”