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AYER — More than 1.5 million gallons of water escaped from a broken 1-inch pipe at the vacant La Sita Restaurant on Park Street in Ayer in August before the break was discovered. Water flooded the ten-foot deep basement and spashed out over the foundation and down into the street before the DPW was alerted and shut off the water.

The final water and sewer bill registered a whopping $22,250 — with $15,642 in sewer and $6,608 in water charges.

The restaurant, co-owned by Husband and wife James and Marsha Januskiewicz, has not been in use in years. The typical $20 minimum water service bills had been routinely and timely paid.

But this bill was different, with a water and sewer useage that caught everyone off guard. And although the Ayer Board of Selectmen have been historically loathe to provide any water or sewer abatements over the years, the La Sita bill seems to have turned the tide.

At the Nov. 22 selectmen’s meeting, DPW Supt. Dan Nason said of the bill “It is staggering” but yielded to the wishes of the selectmen, who double as water commissioners.

“I don’t know the thresholds are because there are none,” said Nason. “It’s either ‘yes’ for everybody or ‘no’ for everybody. But I agree – its a staggering amount.”

Because selectman Chairman Gary Luca is related to Januskiewicz by marriage, Luca recused himself from the deliberations and vote. Luca left the selectmans’ table and turned the reins of the meeting over to Vice Chairman Jim Fay. Luca sat silently in the audience to watch his peers decide the fate of the abatement request.

Luca has repeatedly recused himself from discussions regarding La Sita restaurant. The La Sita site is one of several Park Street properties being eyed for purchase by the town towards the construction of a $4 million downtown commuter train “Rail Trail” parking lot.

Januskiewicz came, hat in hand, acknowledging that he was, technically, fully liable for the balance due. Januskiewicz said that he checks the building weekly over the winter to ensure the pipes haven’t burst, but “not so much otherwise.” The water was shut off at the foundation but the valve may not have held, he said.

It’s unclear how long it took for the basement to fill. Januskiewicz said that he was on vacation in Tennesse when he got the call that water was spilling into the street. After the water was shut off, the water dropped to six feet deep that night, and then 3 feet deep three days later thanks to a drain in the basement that’s tied into the sanitary sewer system.

“Not to split hairs, but not all [of the water] went down the drain,” said Januskiewicz. “Some came out the basement.”

The water/sewer bill came atop the loss of about $80,000 in personal property. “We lost everything,” said Januskiewicz.

Selectman Pauline Conley asked Januskiewicz what relief he sought. “The whole thing?”

“I don’t know,” said Januskiewicz. “I’d love for you to abate the whole thing.”

Conley said in light of the rejections delivered to other property owners over the last several months when seeking abatements, “there has to be consistency in the approval or the denial. We either rebate everybody or not everybody.”

“I don’t want to ask for an exception. I don’t think it’s that cut and dry,” appealed Januskiewicz. “This is a pipe that broke. I think there’s a little leeway thereafter. To say the Water Department is not responsible for ‘"leaks” on premises. To me its not a leak but a break. It’s unfortunate that it happened. I’m just trying to get a break of some sort. We always pay our water bill and are up to date.”

“We’ve been pretty consistently denying these abatment requests, but this is excesive,” said selectman Carolyn McCreary. “Who can pay $22,000?”

McCreary proposed a 90-percent discount. “I’m wondering if we can’t have a compromise, say [paying] 10-percent?”

Januskiewicz was hoping to “get rid of all of it” but said “Anything you guys do for me is a plus. Not for me – for the situation.”

Conley instead suggested an abatement for the $15,000 sewer charge, but requested that the water charge be paid. Selectman Frank Maxant seconded the motion.

“That’s a lot,” countered McCreary.

Nason cautioned that a flood of abatement requests may result. Nason also noted a disconnect, in that Caza Manor Motel was denied it’s abatement request though it suffered from an undetected broken pipe. Nason said a long term solution is upgrading to water meters capable of signaling abnormal trends.

Selectman Jim Fay said that “over my 10 year tenure doing this, this is truly a rare sitation.” He suggested the entire sum be abated.

Conlyy reasoned that the “water came through anyway so there’d be a cost for the water…The water that went through the pipe isn’t available for other uses.” But Conley suggested the sewer charge be waived. Maxant again supported the split, saying he’s consistenly voted againsg taking a “hard line” in such situations.

“But the prior month’s bill had zero [water usage],” said Fay. “I say we abate all but $20. This is crazy. He didn’t use the waer and you can’t prove the whole amount went through the sewer.”

When Nason cautioned the board again that it was “creating a precedent,” Fay responded “This is a case that’s different to me and that’s my position.”

Conley’s sewer-only payment proposal failed on a split 2-2 vote, with McCreary and Fay opposing the idea.

“Now we’re in ‘compromise’ mode,” said McCreary. She suggested Januskiewicz pay half of the $6,608 water bill. But that motion, too, failed on a split 2-2 vote, now with Conley and Maxant opposing the idea.

Conley restated her original motion — abating the $15,642 sewer bill and seeking payment for the $6,608 water bill. The vote was unanimous.

Selectman Jim Fay said the case was a “good lesson learned, shut it [the water] off at the street” for buildings that are no longer in use.

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