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Residents Take Water Authority Complaints to Borough Council

by on June 19, 2014 6:00 AM

Residents who say they're unhappy with the State College Borough Water Authority's billing have brought their complaints before State College Borough Council.

In April, resident and builder Ralph Way went before council saying a water meter at his recently constructed townhomes in the 500 block of Easterly Parkway appeared to be logging unusually high water usage. Initially, he attributed the high numbers to watering new landscaping at the property.

Then, in January, Way says he tested the meter by filling a 5-gallon bucket of water and the meter actually measured twice that amount. Authority employees went to the property, replaced the meter and billed Way for a new meter. Way told council the old meter had been constructed using parts of two different sized meters.

Then, on Monday, Jim and Pam Kessinger, residents on Centre Lane, went before council to say they believe they were wrongly billed more than $800 by the authority for sewer and water usage. Up until then, they say their average bill was $155.

The Kessingers say they received a phone call from the authority and a subsequent bill indicating their water usage for the first quarter of the year was excessive – 63,000 gallons for an 800 square-foot home with one bathroom, a newer low-flow toilet, and low-water washer.

The Kessingers say all testing showed there were no leaks in the system. They believe a faulty meter is the culprit. Once the authority replaced the meter with a new, digital model, water usage was back to normal levels, they say. However, the authority says a test indicated the meter was working properly, therefore, the Kessingers are still responsible for the bill.

The Kessingers appealed the decision, convinced the billing error was not due to their negligence or actual water usage. The authority's five-member committee denied the appeal.

"If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. They are the judge, the jury. They decide your punishment and they decide your appeal," Jim Kessinger said at the council meeting.

The Kessingers, who are retired and live on a fixed income, are now making payments on the water bill. The payment plan comes with a threat: "Failure to pay ... may result in termination of your water benefits without further notification."

"We're paying for a bill we do not owe," Pam Kessinger says.

At the same time, the borough did adjust the couple's sewer portion of the bill to match their typical usage rate.

John Lichman, executive director of the authority, tells StateCollege.com it would be inappropriate to discuss specific customers without their permission, however, he agreed to discuss the issue in a general sense.

Typically, he says sudden escalations in billing are due to a leak in the system, like a leaky toilet, and the customer is still responsible for the extra water use attributed to the leak.

"The water went through water meter, it was recorded and we expect payment. That's the same issue we have with every single one of our customers," Lichman says. "We provide a service. We don't control how much water goes through their water meter. ... Sometimes there's a leaky toilet ... or a stuck valve. These issues happen, and when they do, the water authority, and I believe rightfully so, expects to be paid for that water."

Lichman also notes that if a customer has a concern about a water meter, the authority can test the meter for a $75 fee, which is refunded if there is indeed an issue with the meter.

"If the meter does not pass the calibration test, then it's a bad meter and we're glad you brought it to our attention and that fee is waived. If it does pass, then fee is enforced," says Lichman. "Can a meter fail? Absolutely. But they're very dependable devices and again what we leave for the customer is if you feel the meter has malfunctioned, then let's test it."

Lichman also recommends all customers monitor their water meters on a weekly basis to ensure the reading is accurate and they don't experience "sticker shock" at the end of the quarter.

"We don't want one penny that's not due to us. That's why these meters are calibrated. They're checked. We only bill by the meter," says Lichman. "Customers would do themselves a huge favor just by checking their meter weekly, see what they're using weekly, and if they see spike, it will alert you a lot sooner than being alerted quarterly when you receive bill."

Borough Council approves appointments to the water authority seven-member board. Lichman reports to that board.

The borough's administration is now looking into the matter.

Councilman Thomas Daubert says he has known the Kessingers for 40 years.

"I can't think of anybody who lives in this borough who I would trust more than these people," Daubert says.

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for StateCollege.com. She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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