Crackdown on delinquent water bills

February 26, 2008 5:42:07 PM PST
Today, the Philadelphia City Controller's Office announced the urgent need to crackdown on delinquent water and sewer accounts in the city... delinquent accounts that total 161 million dollars!The focus is on larger customer accounts, many of which have been delinquent for years. It has forced the Philadelphia Water Department to raise water and sewer rates 4 times in the past 2 and a half years. City officials say it's because collection efforts by the Philadelphia Water Revenue Bureau have been grossly inadequate.

"Among other things we recommend that management re-evaluate the entire collection process," said Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz.

More than 70 percent of the Water Revenue's $161 million past due accounts is owed by 62,000 customers. They include individual residents, housing complexes, non-profits, and both federal and state agencies.

One account owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority grew to 1.2 million dollars over a 9 month period. Reportedly, water was sprayed on the Abbottsford Homes Housing site as a means of controlling dust during demolition work. The Water Revenue Bureau billed PHA for 6.5 million gallons of water, but never collected. PHA later told Action News that it pays its bills, but this one is currently in dispute.

Butkovitz tells us, "It's been a philosophy in the city to not be tough about collecting bills."

In a further review of the Bureau's 10 significant accounts, 4 have been delinquent for 15 years, including a now abandoned apartment building in North Philadelphia.

"The concern of our auditors was that there was no conformance to any written standard, procedure or policy," says Butkovitz.

What the City Controllers' office did not address today was the case of the Department of Water Revenue's director of technical operations, Michael Brown, in charge of installing automatic meter readers for the city, is accused of conveniently NOT having one installed in his own home for more than 9 years.

No comment from city officials today, but when some customers cheat the system, and the costs for services to others are not collected, honest taxpayers pay the price.

In some cases the Controller's Office says the city solicitor directed the Water Revenue Bureau to execute a full abatement of a customer's unpaid water bill balances, penalties, and liens, with no explanation to support the decision. In addition, its computer system often erased account information so that there would be no way to hold the Bureau accountable for delinquencies.