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Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, March 20, 2014
Stonington Water Co. gets tough on past due water bills

by Rich Hewitt

Water. Water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

That could be the situation soon for customers who owe money on their water bills to the Stonington Water Company.

The water company staff is ready to turn off water for several customers if their outstanding bills aren’t paid soon.

The water company is currently owed a total of $5,400 in back bills. Some of those whose bills are outstanding are summer residents, and according to Ben Pitts, the system operator, service to most of them already has been shut off.

But some of the delinquent bills belong to year-round users, including one business. On Monday, March 10, Pitts told the selectmen, who serve as the directors of the water company, that the 30-day notice period had expired and that he could turn water off on some of those customers this week. He indicated that he has been in contact with some of those customers without success but added that the payments might come in this week.

“If they come in and turn on the tap and there’s no water, they’ll pay,” said Selectman Richard Larrabee.

Pitts noted that if the water is shut off, the property owner will have to pay what is owed on the bill plus a “turn-on” service charge.

Annaleis Hafford, an engineer with Olver Associates who serves as the water company manager, said March 10, while it seems harsh, the water company needs to find ways to discourage customers from not paying their bills.

“If they’re not paying their bills and we’re not shutting their water off, then they’re going to keep not paying their bills,” she said. “Things will improve if people see that their water is going to be shut off.”

Although the Maine Public Utilities Commission has guidelines for turning off the service, especially during the winter and in cases of hardship, the company does have the authority to discontinue service. However, Hafford noted that the current terms and conditions for the water company don’t provide other means for them to discourage late or non-payment of bills.

And though state rules require that the water company treat everyone the same in terms of billing methods, Hafford said there were ways to give the utility more “teeth” in dealing with water bill deadbeats.

Those methods, however, must be spelled out in the formal terms and conditions for providing service. Currently, there is nothing in those terms and conditions that would allow the water company, for example, to charge late fees or interest on overdue bills.

“There are some things that are normally in the terms and conditions that are not there,” she said.

Hafford said she could work on developing new terms and conditions and indicated that she thought they could be ready to implement before the start of the busy summer season. The PUC would have to review the changes and the water company directors would have to hold a public hearing and then formally adopt them before they could go into effect.

In other business, Hafford again pointed to old and faulty meters as a possible culprit in the unexplained loss of water from the system. Because the town sits on granite, many of the water lines are not buried deeply, so the water company regularly uses bleeders as a way to keep the system’s line from freezing. Some of those are located in private homes.

In December, water company staff installed a bleeder meter at a private home. They used a new household meter, but installed an older meter as a bleeder meter. Unfortunately, Hafford reported, the older meter did not register the low bleeder flows and only recorded a few hundred gallons. The new meter, however, showed a reading of 6,800 cubic feet of water being used. That’s the equivalent of 50,864 gallons during the 56 days the bleeder was running.

“That’s a huge amount of water,” she said, adding that if the new meter had not been installed, they would not have had any idea where that water went.

“This is another reason why we need to get the meters replaced,” she said in her written report to the board.

The water company has purchased 20 new meters and plans to identify meters that are not operating properly and to replace them as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the system seems to be running well. Hafford reported that the water tank has been maintaining a level between 46-to-48 feet and that they only used the winter wells for three days last month. They drew on the wells for 72 hours and pumped a total of 123,731 gallons from two of the summer wells.

“We’ve done really well this winter with a minimal use of the summer wells,” she said.

Pitts has developed a standard operating procedure for the use of the summer wells, and Hafford said that it has not been all that difficult to run those wells in the winter. She suggested that the district may want to consider burying the water lines to the summer wells using funds from the $1.2 million Rural Development grant/loan that the water company has applied for.

Regarding RDA application, Hafford reported that all of the questions from the Maine office have been answered and the application is now on its way to Washington. She said she expected to receive formal approval of the funding sometime in April.