PEPPERELL -- One of the more formidable challenges facing the Department of Public Works is raising revenue to support its water and sewer infrastructure without having to increase rates each year. The Board of Public Works recently tasked DPW Director Kenneth Kalinowski and his staff with looking at where savings could be achieved rather than relying on rate hikes each year to maintain the enterprise fund for the utilities.
Last month, the board agreed with Kalinowski to raise rates once again by 3 percent for sewer and 8 percent for water. The one dissenting vote against that increase came from Commissioner Patrick McNabb, who questioned whether the Sewer and Water Divisions were doing all that could be done to reduce costs.
At last week's board meeting, Water and Sewer Superintendent Laurie Stevens outlined results of an ongoing review of the billing system and processes in need of improvement within the departments.
"This research has been extremely time-consuming, but we feel it's absolutely necessary so as to prepare a solid foundation upon which to base our revenue projections," said Kalinowski.
"We've found ways to tighten our belt and bring in some cash that is owed to us and already billed," said Stevens.
During real-estate transactions, unpaid municipal bills such as water and sewer are supposed to be paid, but at least $6,000 has been found to have been uncollected with some extending back several years.
"We don't show up to the closing," said Stevens.
"What we want to do is collect on this money," she said.
Another issue that was discovered is that "overrides" have resulted in the under-billing of at least 40 accounts. Overrides may be applied for a sewer connection within a billing cycle resulting, as an example for a sewer permit. Overrides are supposed to be removed immediately after the permit is issued so that normal billing can be resumed.
The first two accounts that were reviewed revealed under-billing of $400 and $2,000.
"We're getting more and more familiar with the software," said Stevens, who added that an internal policy and procedure is being written to avoid the problem in the future.
Other problems discovered included occupied homes with water and/or sewer service being inaccurately flagged as inactive, and outstanding unbilled maintenance fees including one that dates back five years.
"We are taking a more aggressive approach to past due accounts," said Stevens.
"Towards the end of the year in September and October, any accounts that have over a $250 balance in either water or sewer and are over six months past due would go to lien and a $75 lien fee would be charged to the account for water and/or sewer," she said.
Stevens noted that approximately $100,000 in sewer charges went to lien this past year and another $100,000 in water charges. Despite $200,000 going to lien, approximately $500,000 in billed water and sewer charges remain outstanding beyond their due dates.
"There's about $150,000 in overdue balances from commercial accounts," said Stevens, who identified that number as part of the overall $700,000 in past due accounts.
"We're working on a shut-off policy for the board to review," she said.
Other policy improvements include adding interest charges after 30 days. Stevens and her staff are also working with the utility billing software company UMS to address issues.
"This is a discovery process that we're just embarking on this week. We want to make sure we have all the facts and figures and see what the magnitude of the situation is," said Stevens.
"This is really awesome," said Commissioner Paul Brinkman.
"We're finding these things as we go along, and quite honestly, very simple questions such as to why this is happening don't have a good answer," said Kalinowski.
How to handle under-billed accounts remains a question that the board plans to address at a future meeting.
The board approved abatement requests for 43-7 and 43-8 Nashua Road for $8.06, 9 Ieal St. for $17.42, 20 Oakland Road for $56.75, and $178.02 for 11 Hyacinth Drive.