City woman receives a $4,413 water bill

SANDUSKY When Don Miears took over as interim city manager, he didn't know he would be drowning in w
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

When Don Miears took over as interim city manager, he didn't know he would be drowning in water woes.

But Miears' desk is saturated with water bill complaints from city residents who feel they got soaked.

The city saw a spike in complaints about water bills after having estimated bills for two months because of heavy snows and prolonged cold weather.

One of those complaints came from 62-year-old widow Barbara Chiow, who would ordinarily take a decade to use $4,413 of water and sewer service.

A pipe that cracked between meter readings on Jan. 16 and April 12 caused a decade's worth of water to soak into the soil beneath her home.

The city hung a door tag notifying her about higher-than-normal water consumption on May 23, more than a month after the April reading.

Chiow had turned her water off on May 20 after her neighbor, Mary McKillips, heard the leak while house-sitting for Chiow.

Usually her bill is about $35. Chiow said she "almost passed out" when she opened this bill.

Having a $4,000-plus water and sewer bill isn't something she had planned for, and it's something she certainly can't afford on a fixed income. She just finished paying for her late husband's funeral and is still paying on medical bills from when he was sick.

She still doesn't understand why there was such a long delay in notifying her about the problem.

Chiow and her daughter have spoken with city Finance Director Ed Widman several times.

"Mr. Widman has been a very nice man about this," she said.

Widman has had at least a dozen complaints about inordinately high water bills. To have a water bill adjusted a person must show proof of an undetectable leak, such as a repair bill, Widman said. The most frequent places for undetectable leaks are underneath homes and in yards near where the water meter connects to the piping.

People can contest their bills by sitting down with Miears, who will hear each case individually to consider awarding credits.

"We're trying to be as flexible as possible," Widman said. "Even in the worst-case scenario we aren't going to ask someone to pay in full in 30 days."

From time to time the city deals with a case of an undetectable leak, but the current number of complaints is staggering compared to an average winter, Widman said.

The city usually notifies customers who have a significant change in consumption. When bills were estimated for two months, that didn't happen.

Landlord Chris Tulupan feels this is the second time he's been "hosed."

This time last year Tulupan had problems with renters not paying their water bills and water being shut off. Because of his problem the city modified its delinquency notice to alert owners and renters when someone has more than $100 unpaid on a water account.

Tulupan came back to city commission last week with a $615 water bill because of a leak during the months bills were estimated.

"I jump through every hoop the city asks. I get my permits. I do the inspections. My tax bill comes, then I pay my taxes on time. I pay everything that you ask me to do," he said. "All I'm asking you to do is send out the notice."

Widman said when estimating the bills two months in a row became necessary, he made the decision to dispense with sending the overdue notices.

The city didn't want to shut someone's water off based on estimated meter readings, he said.

But for Tulupan the delinquent notice would have been a warning there was a potential water problem at the property.

Commissioners promised Tulupan that in the future the notices will be sent out, estimated or not.

But that doesn't take care of Tulupan's $615 water bill.

"This is absolutely ridiculous," said commissioner Brian Crandall. "As soon as I picked up the phone and he said, 'This is Chris Tulupan,' I said what's the water problem? He's just looking for resolve."

"Something has to be done. The red flag should have gone up," Tulupan said.