A few days before a the discovery that a leaking oil line contaminated community water supply and prompted a “do no drink” advisory that lasted the better part of a week, water was already on the minds of many New Paltz residents.
Irate residents turned out in force at the joint meeting of the Town and Village Boards on February 6, outraged by the discovery that they owed large sums on water bills going back many years. Particularly galling to many, and even frightening to some, was a statement in their most recent bill to the effect that water service would be turned off if the back bill was not paid in full by the specified deadline.
The accumulated undercharges, affecting about 50 properties, came to light after new water meters were installed throughout the town, funded by a grant from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection as part of its massive multiyear project to upgrade the Catskill Aqueduct. Amounts owed to the town’s Water Department range from $41 to “almost $24,000,” according to town supervisor Neil Bettez, with about half of the newly issued bills being for more than $1,000. Half of those higher bills were incurred by commercial properties, but one family owes about $4,000 in past water usage, he said.
Bettez brought a visual aid to the meeting: the innards of an actual water meter. He demonstrated how a valve flutters inside the mechanism as water flows over it, also showing the “reader,” which is external to the “meter.” The problem, he explained, is that the reader part — used to calculate the amount to be billed to the property-owner — are often mounted on the exterior of the building, so that Water Department employees are not required to obtain access to the interior each time they need to take a reading. “The readers eventually slow down, more than the meters, because they’re exposed to the elements,” Bettez said. “It’s pretty much guaranteed that you’re underreading over time. We tend to be conservative in our estimates. We don’t want to bill people until we’re sure.”
Now the town is sure, with the new meters installed and new numbers compared with the totals recorded on the old meters. As part of his presentation, Bettez displayed a graph showing a “spike in consumption” in 2019 to an average household water usage of 170 gallons per day (GPD), compared to an average of 75 gallons per day before the changeover. It’s not that people suddenly started using much more water, but that their usage is now being measured accurately. Even the 170 GPD figure is much lower than the national average, he noted.
But the residents in attendance were not appreciative of the supervisor’s science-class approach, and some were downright livid about these unanticipated charges. David Miller, president of the Cherry Hill Neighborhood Association, called the town’s handling of the matter “a great example of gross incompetence.” Noting that his own bill had jumped from a normal average of $71 to more than $700, Miller demanded an apology from Bettez, saying, “I would’ve expected you to go over every one of these bills personally. I would’ve expected you to call me personally.”
Some critics, including the signatories to a letter and petition to the town from the Cherry Hill Neighborhood Association, allege that municipal employees were aware that the external meters they were using to bill customers were inaccurate or non-functional, and continued to use the inaccurate external meters rather than the internal meters, or bill residents based on an estimate, even after becoming aware of the problem. “Being forced to pay for a discrepancy caused by several years of negligence on the part of the town is unacceptable, especially when we were led to believe that our bills were accurate and up-to-date,” the letter states.
Miller was not the only member of the audience to contend that he had not lived at his present address long enough to have accrued such a high amount of underbilling over the years. “The previous owner was responsible for part of that water bill,” he contended. “When you buy a house, you get a final read. It’s supposed to be an internal read,” Bettez explained, referring to the fact that a water meter typically has an indoor reader in addition to the outdoor one.
Fawn Tantillo, landlady to four residentials buildings in Sewer District 6, said that one of her tenants who “hadn’t been there that long” had been hit with a $1,500 back bill. “I don’t think any of us was trying to get away with anything.” Another of her tenants, billed $500, was a “single Mom on Section 8. She’s going to have a real hard time paying that,” Tantillo said.
The Cherry Hill petition, as well as several individuals who spoke up at the meeting, demanded that the town waive the discrepancies between current and past billing. While acknowledging that “some of these bills are a hardship,” Bettez was not able to offer full forgiveness as a solution, saying that, according to state law, “It’s illegal to waive bills. But I’m going to ask the board to waive the penalties and fees for late bills.” In addition, town officials said, interest-free payment plans would be worked out for each of the affected water customers.
While noting that Bettez and the Water Department staff had been working on the billing issue almost exclusively since the discrepancies came to light, “We should’ve done it sooner,” said town councilwoman Julie Seyfert-Lillis. “We’re going to be reaching out to people. Everyone’s going to get a personalized graph.” Councilman David Brownstein concurred, saying, “This approach has really not felt like New Paltz to me. Hang on; we’re working on it…Please tell your neighbors who aren’t here that their water’s not going to be turned off.”