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 Knightstown Council Argues Over Utility Bill Adjustment

March 25, 2009 - Questions over a proposed adjustment to a utility customer’s water bill led to several minutes of heated discussion near the end of the Knightstown Town Council’s March 19 monthly meeting.

The issue was raised by council member Steve Nelson, as the monthly claim docket was being considered. Turning to a claim on the water utility portion of the docket -- which he identified only as claim 16828 -- Nelson said, “I don’t like that all.”

For the benefit of all those who were present but had no idea what Nelson was talking about, Council Vice President Terry Guerin explained that the claim had been an adjustment to a water utility customer’s bill. He then turned and addressed Nelson directly.

“You and I have already discussed your objection to that,” Guerin said. “I thought we had resolved it.”

“We never resolved it,” Nelson replied.

“If you want to pursue it, I’m happy to pursue it,” Guerin said, “but I stand on what transpired.”

“I don’t see how we can say it’s all right to do this,” Nelson said. “... I think it should be brought before the board, and this is the board, and that’s why I’m bringing it before the board.”

“I got a call from a constituent that had a problem, and I dealt with it,” Guerin began explaining.

“And he followed policy and procedure in doing so,” Council President Valerie Trump added.

“Absolutely not,” Nelson said.

Guerin said Works Manager Mel Matlock had told him that two council members had to sign off on any adjustment to a customer’s water bill. He said he and council member Bob Weber had done this, and that if one of them had been unable to do so, Trump had been prepared to approve it.

“Just because things have been done ... a certain way for the last 25 years doesn’t mean it’s right,” Guerin said. “I think that taking advantage of our constituents, if that’s the case --”

“How can you say that were taking advantage of our constituents,” Nelson interrupted, “when we just had to raise the water bill to make ends meet.”

“At this point in time, they did follow policy and procedure to make the decision,” Trump said to Nelson. “If you want to recommend that policy be amended, then let’s draft a new policy, hand it out and take it under consideration.”

“Where is this policy?” Nelson asked Trump. “Show me the policy, Valerie.” He said he reviewed a copy of a Knightstown Utility Office manual and found no mention of the policy.

“Well, a two-page office procedure’s not going to say a whole lot, Steve,” Trump said. “... It says the adjustment takes two council members’ signatures. They got the two council members’ signature.”

Trump asked Clerk-Treasurer Judy Haines whether this was the policy for making adjustments. Haines agreed and said two council members were required to sign off on an adjustment, or that the town council president could do it.

If Nelson wanted the town to handle adjustments differently, Trump again suggested he draft an amended policy for the council to review. If the council agreed to the changes, she said a new policy would be adopted.

“I will tell you that if you come back to this (council) with a policy that’s the same or similar to what you say it ought to be, you and I are going to go nose to nose,” Guerini told Nelson.

“I don’t understand what you’re saying, Terry, because I see no policy,” Nelson said.

Guerin said his actions had been intended to correct a wrong. He said he thought the town’s citizens had “been treated wrong for years.”

At this point, council member Clyde South called for a point of order, which Trump echoed with the banging of her gavel. South said that if Trump were going participate in the debate of this issue, he thought she needed to relinquish the chair. He also added that Trump could call Nelson and Guerin out of order.

Gregg Morelock, the town’s attorney, said another option would be for the council to simply proceed to vote on the claim docket. He said if Nelson doesn’t agree with the adjustment the utility bill, he had the right to vote against the docket’s approval.

And that’s what happened. The council voted to approve the claim docket by a vote of 4-1, with Nelson casting the dissenting vote.

While Nelson’s objection had been that he felt the decision to adjust the bill was one for the council to make, that’s effectively what happened. Because the adjustment was part of the docket of unpaid claims, payment required approval by a majority of the council’s five members. Had two other council members joined Nelson in voting against the docket -- or even just that claim in particular -- the adjustment would not have been made, even though Guerin and Weber had signed off on it.

Throughout the discussion of this issue at last week’s meeting, the council didn’t reveal any details about the adjustment, including the amount or the reason it was made. That information, however, was provided earlier this week by Haines and Linda Glenn, the town’s deputy clerk-treasurer and utility office manager.

Glenn told The Banner that the utility customer had water pipes burst at their South Washington Street residence while they were out of state for an extended period of time. She said the leak resulted in 259,100 gallons of water usage for the billing period and a $688.97 water bill, which was, with the approval of the claims docket last week, reduced to $8.32.

Because sewer bills are based on water consumption, the utility customer also had a very high sewer bill -- $816.96 -- and this was reduced by $789.20. Unlike adjustments to water bills that require that require council approval, Haines and Glenn said sewer bill adjustments only require Matlock’s approval and do not show up on the claim docket for the council’s approval.

Glenn, who has worked for the town’s utilities more than 30 years, told The Banner that adjustments to water bills are very rare. In fact, she said she could only recall it happening maybe one other time. At two or three a month, however, she said sewer bill adjustments are much more common.


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