A river runs through it?

Williston homeowner contests inflated water bill

July 28, 2011

By Adam White
Observer staff
The owners of this home at 424 Metcalf Dr. in Williston were billed for 90,000 gallons of water during the fourth quarter of this past fiscal year, more than five times their average water use during the first three quarters. Homeowner Brian Ricca appealed to the town’s Selectboard on Monday night, calling the bill “exorbitant.” (Observer photo by Adam White)

No matter how Brian Ricca crunches them, the numbers just don’t add up: four family members plus four toilets does not equal 90,000 gallons of water.

But that is the amount listed on the Metcalf Dr. homeowner’s fourth quarter water bill, which totals $613.65 — more than five times the family’s average bill for the first three quarters of the fiscal year. Ricca appealed the bill to the Williston Selectboard on Monday, saying there is no way his family could have used that much water.

“There seems to be something amiss,” Ricca said. “I’m not looking for a handout here, just some reason and logic.”

The family’s average water bill over the previous three quarters was $122.23. The third-quarter amount ($91.46) was estimated, due to weather conditions in February that made it difficult to “even find the meter,” according to town manager Rick McGuire.

“Because that bill was estimated, this (problem) could have started at the beginning of a six-month period, and it wouldn’t have been caught until the end,” McGuire said.

Public Works director Bruce Hoar told the Selectboard that several steps were taken to identify the problem once Ricca appealed his bill, starting with a test to determine whether one of the four toilets in Ricca’s home was leaking.

John Marchant, branch manager of the plumbing department at Blodgett Supply Co. in Williston, said on Tuesday that a faulty seal between a toilet’s tank and bowl is typically to blame in such scenarios.

“If the flapper that seals off between the tank and bowl is running, you could run your water bill to enormous proportions,” Marchant said.

Ricca said tests did not reveal problems with any of his toilets, and that the volume of water used makes that explanation unlikely. He provided the Selectboard with data from a University of Pennsylvania study estimating that “a silent leak in a toilet can waste up to 7,000 gallons of water per month.”

“Even if all four had leaked for the entire time, it still would not equal the amount showing up on the bill,” Ricca said.

Hoar said that the only other explanation was a faulty reading; his department had the meter in question tested — at further expense to the homeowner — and found it to be functioning properly.

“There is nothing wrong with the meter,” Hoar said. “The water went through the meter; that’s all I can say. Where it went after that, I don’t have a clue. Once the water goes through that meter, we have no control over it … (but the town is) paying for it.”

Selectboard member Debbie Ingram raised the possibility of someone in the house — or even a family pet — being the culprit. Ingram said that she has seen YouTube videos of cats that learn to flush toilets, and have been captured doing so repeatedly.

“We’ve had our dog for seven years, and she is unable to flush the toilet,” Ricca said. He added that his wife has a stay-at-home job, and would likely detect such a problem before it led to large-scale water waste.

Hoar said that similar situations have been brought to his department’s attention in the past, and that circumstances have always been found to warrant collecting the due amount in full from the homeowner. Hoar mentioned one instance in which an elderly couple — struggling with Alzheimer’s disease and hearing loss — allowed a faulty toilet to run unchecked for an extended period of time.

The three Board members present at Monday’s meeting voted unanimously to appoint a yet-unnamed individual as a fact-finder to conduct further investigation and advise them on the situation.

“We’re all homeowners here, and we all sympathize with your situation,” Ingram told Ricca. “(The bill) doesn’t sound reasonable.”