Lisa Joyce has opened a lot of utility bills during the 24 years she has lived on her quiet street in Munroe Falls. But her eyes never grew wider than they did one day in January 2012.
The city sent the four-person family a water bill for $4,416.20.
Yes. As in “$4,416.20.”
And it wasn’t a typo.
When she and her husband balked, the water department shot off a letter claiming they had used 698,000 gallons of water they hadn’t paid for, and attributed much of that usage to “your ownership of a swimming pool on the property. Please forward any receipts or proof of payments of water purchased from an outside source to fill and maintain your pool.”
Um ... the Joyces don’t own a swimming pool. Never have.
I personally checked their back yard. The whole thing is about 60 feet by 70 feet, so I was able to examine it pretty closely in a relatively brief period of time. I saw some nice plants and a lot of religious icons, but I didn’t see any signs of a pool, past or present.
In terms of water, I didn’t see so much as a birdbath.
Even if the Joyces had owned a 50- by 20-foot in-ground pool with an 8-foot deep end, they wouldn’t have needed much more than 30,000 gallons to fill it. With those 698,000 extra gallons, they could have drained and refilled their nonexistent pool 23 times.
At first, Lisa and her husband, Bob, figured this would be easy to straighten out.
“No pool,” they said.
“Oh,” the city said. “Sorry. Guess the thing we saw in the aerial photographs on the county’s website was a trampoline, which would explain why the location changed over time.
“But you still owe us for the water.”
The city insists the inside meter it installed in 2001 was correct, and the outside meter it installed the same year was incorrect.
The inside meter is always correct, the city says, regardless of what the outside meter says. The one on the outside is just a “convenience,” hard-wired to the inside meter so the meter-readers don’t have to enter houses. Residents are responsible for comparing the two readings regularly and alerting the city to any discrepancy.
The city told the Joyces their problem probably dates back to the installation of the new meters in 2001. But the city’s water records only go back to 2008, so that’s just a guess.
A $4,400 guess.
And because the Joyces didn’t bother to check their inside meter against their outside meter, well, this whole thing is their fault.
As in most cities, water bills are tied to sewer bills. In the case of Munroe Falls, the water comes from the city, but Summit County owns and bills for the sewer. And when the county was informed the Joyces had used an extra 698,000 gallons, the county did its math and came up with a sewer bill of $6,196.32.
Fortunately, the county employs at least one person in her right mind. That would be Joan Goff, senior administrator for the Department of Environmental Services, who looked into the situation and agreed a $6,200 sewer bill was absurd.
Citing Munroe Falls’ “lack of documentation of meter inspections [and] meter calibrations,” Goff called the water bill “unwarranted” and sent the Joyces an adjusted sewer bill of $484.20 — a reduction of more than $5,700.
But Munroe Falls didn’t care what the county said. Last month, the city was on the brink of shutting off the Joyces’ water until Councilman Steve Stahl interceded.
Stahl, a former police chief, looked at the situation and came to the Joyces’ defense in a letter to the administration, saying, among other things, that the service director told him that one-third of all remote meters are faulty and most residents have no idea they are responsible for checking both meters.
Stahl also said the city should take some of the blame because it never inspected the inside meter during that 11-year period — an inspection that is supposed to take place at least once a year.
“I have lived in my house since 1989,” Stahl wrote. “ ... No one has ever requested to come in and read the meter.”
So when the city accuses the citizens of shirking their duty by not comparing their inside meters to their outside reading, it’s not getting a lot of sympathy in this corner.
City won’t budge
Mayor Frank Larson said the city probably mistook a trampoline for a pool but insists that doesn’t change anything.
“The fact of the matter is you are responsible for what goes through the main meter of the house,” he says. “The other meter is a convenience meter so you don’t have to be home to let somebody in to read the meter.”
Larson says residents are told to report their inside readings every quarter. When asked how many actually do, he admitted the percentage is “probably very low.”
He says help might be on the way: “We’re working on changing to an automatic read, computerized system like some of the other cities have done.”
That won’t help the Joyces.
After the family dug in its heels, the city offered an installment plan of $100 per month. The Joyces still weren’t inclined to pay for water usage that couldn’t be documented.
But Munroe Falls isn’t budging. It says the Joyces must begin to pay immediately or their water will be shut off.
To one of their neighbors, this is deja vu.
Susan Sherry, who lives three houses away, says her normal water bill was about $40 until she opened an envelope in late 2009 and saw a figure close to $1,500.
When she called for an explanation, the city came out and “said there was a tiny leak in one toilet. They said that must have done it. They said meters don’t lie.”
She swallowed hard and paid the bill.
“We didn’t think we had any choice,” she says. “They said they would shut our water off if we didn’t pay it.”
After learning about the Joyces’ situation, Sherry says she thinks the city is purposely messing with water customers to raise money.
If nothing else, the city’s approach is heavy-handed. Its initial letter to the Joyces — the one about the pool — also accused the family of “tampering” with the outside meter, saying it had been “dismantled” and “put back together with some kind of epoxy.”
Well, yes, the meter was removed in 2011. But only long enough for a contractor to replace the siding that was destroyed when a huge tree fell on the garage during a wicked storm that blew through the area in March of that year.
To Lisa Joyce, the whole situation just doesn’t compute.
“I’ve talked to all sorts of people — doctors, lawyers, nurses — and nobody knows they’re supposed to check their inside meter,” she says.
“I told the city, ‘When people move to Munroe Falls, you’re going to have to have classes now on how to live here.’ ”
Those people had better bring a pile of money, too.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.