Some thirsty city residents this week were surprised to find no water coming out of their taps. They had been unknowingly disconnected for lack of payment.
Confused, angry residents were later told city officials had moved up the payment date for utilities, but never informed the public of the change.
Harmony Bryan, a 20-year resident, said she was shocked and upset when her water was disconnected Thursday.
“The city water guy knocked on my door, and said I was one of more than 10 people having their water turned off,” Bryan told the Herald-Press Thursday. “He told me it was because the city changed the billing cycle. I've never had my water shut off like this; I pay my bills on time.”
Bryan, a 38-year-old single mother of three, said the city should get their act together.
“The city never notified me,” she said. “Heck, I never even received a bill. When I got home from taking care of this at City Hall, I had a yellow late notice in the mail – after the water had been shut off.”
City Finance Director Jim Mahoney acknowledged the city's error.
“I have to take the hit on this,” Mahoney told the Herald-Press. “I didn't have a notice put on previous bills that the billing cycle was moving from a 30-day cycle to 20 days.”
The result: residents who historically paid their bill around the first of the month became delinquent without realizing it. Some incurred late fees, while others, like Bryan, lost their water completely.
“City ordinance says the billing cycle is to be 20 days,” Mahoney said, in defense of the change. “We've been operating within a 30-day cycle for a long time, though. All I did was make sure the city complied with the ordinance.”
Residents who have never been disconnected in the past, and were charged late fees and/or re-connect fees due to the error, Mahoney said, are eligible to have the charges removed from their bills. If they've already paid their bills, the overages will be credited towards next month.
Those who have had their water disconnected in the past, however, may not receive a refund.
“If a resident has never been disconnected before, we'll wave the fee,” Mahoney said. “If they're habitual offenders, though, then no; not if they've shown that their service would have been disconnected, regardless.”
District Two City Councilman Mitchell Jordan, who disagreed with Mahoney about changing the billing cycle, said the city should take responsibility, and refund everyone who was disconnected, or charged a late fee.
“There are people who struggle to pay their water bill every month, and people who don't,” Mitchell told the Herald-Press. “If they've been late in the past, or even shut off because they're on a fixed income, that shouldn't count against them. The city made a mistake, and the city should fix it for everyone.”
Jordan said his phone has been ringing non-stop since the water stopped flowing.
“Water is something people can't live without, and should be looked at in a whole different light,” he said. “If the ordinance says 20 days, then maybe the council should change it to 30, like people are used to.
“I applaud Jim [Mahoney] for a lot of stuff that he does, but this thing with the water bills just wasn't right.”
Bryan said the water fiasco is just the latest in a long string of events that have caused her to lose faith in her city government.
“With the streets, the park closing, and now this, I don't have much confidence in our city leadership,” she said. “It's sad. It makes me want to just get up and move somewhere else.”