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No water for Manchester sewer bill scofflaws?

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 24. 2014 10:32PM

MANCHESTER — Take note, sewer bill scofflaws: unless you settle up with the city, your tap could soon run dry.

City aldermen have given preliminary approval to combining the billing systems for the pipes that deliver water to residences and take wastewater away, a move officials hope will boost collection on sewer accounts.

Last year, nearly 10 percent of sewer bills were delinquent, at a loss to the city of $1.6 million.

Whereas Water Works could turn off the spigot for people behind on water bills, the city’s only recourse for nonpayment of sewer charges was the protracted process of filing a lien on the residence.

The joint billing will in effect enable the city to make long-term delinquencies on either account subject to the same penalty: cutting off the water.

For the past several months, the city’s Information Systems Department has been working with the Manchester Water Works and the city’s Environmental Protection Division, which currently administers sewer accounts, on merging the billing systems.

Department officials on Tuesday presented the aldermen’s Committee on Administration with the proposed sewer ordinance changes that would allow them to implement the system. At the same time, EPD Chief Engineer Fred MacNeill told the committee that notices about the combined billing program would go out next week.

Under the new system, any money paid on a water bill would first go toward any deficit in the sewer account. In other words, until a customer is caught up with their sewer bill, their water bill won’t be paid, thereby risking a cut-off.

“One of the benefits in combined billing hopefully will be a decrease in delinquencies,” MacNeill said.

Phil Croasdale, Water Works’ financial officer, explained that combining the bills was a way of working around a state statute that allows cutting off water only for nonpayment of water bills. He noted that Portsmouth has adopted a similar system.

MacNeill stressed that cutting off a resident’s water would be a last resort.

“We’re going to be very sensitive as we move forward,” he said. “Like in the past, we’ll work with all our customers to reach a fair and equitable payment plan.”

Aldermen Ron Ludwig, Ward 2, and Barbara Shaw, Ward 9, raised concerns about rental buildings and the possibility that tenants would suffer because of a landlord who did not pay their bills.

“There are situations where people are paying rent on time, but someone’s not paying sewer,” Ludwig said. “I’m just wondering if there are any mechanisms for an appeals process before water is actually shut off?

Croasdale said a number of steps would be taken before water is shut off at a rental building, including placing notices on the doors of residents.

Ludwig said he supported the change, while adding, “We’re going to leave the fairness up to you.”

Shaw was among several elected officials who had amassed unpaid property tax and sewer bills last year. She’s since largely caught up on her payments, owing $36.57 on her sewer bill for 2014.

The committee voted to support the combined billing as part of a larger updating of the city’s sewer ordinances. The ordinances are expected to be voted on by the full board of aldermen at their next meeting on Aug. 5. They will then undergo further review by two more committees.

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