The chairman of the City Council’s finance committee on Thursday night called for an audit of municipal sewer billings. His call came after mayor Andre Sayegh’s administration bungled the implementation of sewer reforms that led to big increases in fees for property owners.
“We need to hire an independent auditor to look at the current billing situation that we have with the sewer,” said councilman Flavio Rivera. “There’s a lot of things that has come up since the last meeting that I find disturbing.”
Rivera said some big sewer users were not billed. Among them Passaic County and some Paterson Public Schools buildings. The introduced budget listed an $18 million sewer expense, but the city billed for $20 million, he said.
“I have some concerns about the accuracy of our billing,” said Rivera. “I have no confidence in the way this was done.”
By not billing some big users, the city effectively increased the burden on those that were billed. Rivera described the situation as “unacceptable.”
Some of the bills went up 100-percent. At least one property’s sewer fees increased by 1,000-percent.
“The bills I’ve seen are tremendously high, way above anything we could have predicted or understood it to be,” said William McKoy, 3rd Ward councilman. “This is a major issue because it affects everybody.”
Council members Shahin Khalique and Al Abdelaziz said everyone they have spoken to over the past days complained about sewer bill increases.
McKoy said the billings need to be addressed. If there are big increases, those need to be phased in over time, he said. He suggested the city use its sewer consultants to review and analyze the billings.
20,487 sewer users are affected by the bungled billings.
“Something needs to be done,” said Ruby Cotton, 4th Ward councilwoman.
“There are people that may lose their house over this situation,” said Michael Jackson, 1st Ward councilman.
Sayegh has said he will hold a townhall meeting to address the situation, but has not made public a time or date. He also posted a video on social media with his chief of staff Kathleen Long trying to assuage ratepayers’ concerns.
Neither the mayor nor his chief of staff had answers as to why the bills skyrocketed or what’s being done to address the matter.
Long instead spent time regurgitating the same information she had provided to council members earlier in the year in presentations. Council members accused the administration of misleading them through those presentations. At some intervals, she tried to impart conservation advice to homeowners on reducing water usage.
“The mayor has to come forward with a straight statement,” said Luis Velez, 5th Ward councilman.
At the recommendation of the Sayegh administration, the council approved creation of a sewer utility and a new billing method. Revising the billing method may have been an error, said Rivera.
Rivera said the utility could have been created without changing the billing method.
The city is billing homeowners a flat fee based on meter size and a usage fee based on the previous year’s water usage.
Sayegh’s business administrator Vaughn McKoy acknowledged there were issues.
“All the concerns are valid,” said the business administrator. He said the city needs to have answers before it can hold a townhall meeting. “We have to collect the data to see what the issue is.”
The business administrator asked for time to collect data. He also said the city will ask its consultants to analyze the problematic accounts.
Some bills may be correct based on usage, said the business administrator.
“Not every resident of Paterson has an issue with the billing,” said the business administrator.
“Majority of them does,” responded Khalique.
The business administrator said there was no way to be “clairvoyant” about the issue that has emerged.
Rivera said the city ignored his suggestion to conduct mock billings which would have revealed some of the issues. Many of the issues were avoidable, he said.
“You left out a lot of entities,” said Rivera to the business administrator.
“Big customers,” interjected Abdelaziz.
Khalique said until the city fixes the issue ratepayers should be granted a grace period for payments.
Jackson said the City Council needs to take some responsibility for the debacle. Sewer reforms were passed in an 8-0 vote in May. Jackson was absent during the vote.
Rivera said he took offense at Jackson’s assertion that the council should bear some blame.
“We did our due diligence. We approved something that should have been rolled our correctly,” said Rivera. “It wasn’t executed correctly.”