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$20K and counting: Clerk finds underbilled water customers

August 03, 2011 - Oxford Village Clerk Susan Nassar freely admitted she's probably not the most popular person in the community these days.

That's because Nassar's been diligently tracking down village water customers who have been severely underbilled for years.

"There's one commercial building that had used 4.5 million gallons (of water) and never paid for use," she told the council at last week's village meeting. "We have back-billed them slightly over $15,000."

To date, Nassar's found a total of 12 customers who were paying nothing more than the monthly base charge of $18.10 for all the water they were using.

"They were paying their minimum bill. They never got charged for the water they actually used," she told this reporter.

That $18.10 base charge includes 2,000 gallons of water whether the customer uses it or not. Every 1,000 gallons that's used above that is supposed to be billed at a rate of $3.41.

What happened with the customers that Nassar's been dealing with is the computer at the village office that calculates water bills was reading every 1,000 gallons as 1 gallon.

For example, a customer who's used 20,000 gallons in a month should be billed $79.48, which is the $18.10 base charge plus $61.38 for the remaining 18,000 gallons.

However, this computer, unless properly set, would read that 20,000 gallons as 20 gallons and therefore bill the customer only $18.10 because the usage didn't exceed 2,000 gallons.

The problem wasn't computer error; it was operator error. Nassar explained that whenever a new water account is created – either for a new customer or the installation of a meter for an in-ground sprinkler system – the computer program's default setting is 1 gallon. It must be manually changed to 1,000 gallons in order to accurately calculate water usage fees, which are charged in 1,000-gallon increments.

"It's so easy to overlook," Nassar said.

Due to this error, 10 of the 12 aforementioned customers had been collectively underbilled approximately $20,000 for about 5 million gallons dating back to 2008. One dated back to 2006.

"It's substantial," Nassar said. "The commercial one itself was over $15,000."

The commercial customer she's referring to is the Oxford Towne Center strip mall, located at the northeast corner of M-24 and Drahner Rd. She indicated the center's main tenant, Rite-Aid, agreed to pay 40 percent of the bill, while discussions are taking place with the other tenants over how to divide up the remaining $9,000 debt.

Nassar estimated the other nine residential customers, some of whom have in-ground sprinkler systems, were underbilled anywhere from $99 to about $800 each.

"I have gotten complete payment on some of these," she told council. Others arranged to pay in installments.

Because this was the village's mistake, no interest or penalties are being charged and none of these customers are in danger of having their water shut-off.

"We take complete responsibility," Nassar said.

Nassar didn't have figures on the remaining two customers because she just discovered them on Monday, Aug. 1.

Nassar noted locating these underbilled customers and charging them isn't a pleasant task, but it's something that must be done.

"I'm not very well-liked. I feel bad," she said. "But the ordinance says there is no free water, no free service, which means I have to back-bill."

The village ordinance clearly states, "No free service shall be furnished by the system to the village or to any person, public or private, or to any public agency or instrumentality."

"I have to do what's right. Why should your (water) rates go up because people aren't getting billed?" Nassar explained. "The goal is never, never, never to overbill, but we can never undercharge either. My goal is to be 100 percent you-pay-for-what-you-use – no more, no less. That way it's fair."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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