Review of Portland sewer charges finds no intentional wrongdoing, more improper billing

Posted April 06, 2012, at 6:01 p.m.
Last modified April 07, 2012, at 11:43 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — An attorney investigating an error in sewer billing for Shipyard Brewing Co. that cost the city of Portland nearly $1.5 million over 15 years reported Friday that 12 other smaller accounts also were billed improperly, costing the city another $50,000 in lost revenues.

Attorney Bryan Dench delivered his findings to City Manager Mark Rees on Friday, reporting that the original billing error associated with Shipyard Brewing appeared to result from an innocent miscommunication between City Hall and the Portland Water District. He also determined that brewery officials did not act dishonestly in the affair and were unaware of the mistake.

“Without question, this billing error is regrettable, and while there is no definitive answer as to how this miscommunication occurred, I am hopeful that the findings of this independent investigation are assuring to the public,” Rees said in a statement released Friday afternoon by the city.

“Certainly a mistake of this magnitude is unfortunate,” he continued. “The city is taking aggressive action to ensure that there are checks and balances in place so that something like this won’t happen again. We need to deserve the trust bestowed upon us by the public and I am hopeful that the investigation findings and our actions to remedy the situation will help assuage concerns.”

Dench’s report also revealed that 12 accounts that were not being charged for sewer service should be, adding up to a cumulative revenue loss of nearly $47,000. Those accounts belong to smaller-scale users, who were not identified in a city announcement Friday afternoon, with monthly bills ranging from $24 to $162; they are now being correctly billed.

Dench is scheduled to discuss his findings in greater depth with the City Council at its meeting Monday night.

The attorney was hired by the city to look into the Shipyard billing mistake last month after city officials learned that a 6-inch water main line installed to the brewery in 1996 was erroneously labeled a “water no sewer” line.

“Mr. Dench attributes much of the miscommunication to a misunderstanding between city and PWD staff,” a Friday night city announcement reads, in part. “He concludes that the conversations between these two entities indicate that they might have been talking past each other, with David Peterson, the city’s senior sewer technician, either referring to a submeter or separate line at the brewery.

“From 1997, the brewery had two water main lines, a 6- and 4-inch each with primary meters and submeters,” the city explanation continued, in part. “The 4-inch line has always been properly billed for both water and sewer, minus the amount measured by the submeter as going into product. Mr. Dench further states that an error of this magnitude would be completely out of character for Peterson. Peterson was an experienced public official with an excellent reputation.”

Typically, sewer bills and water bills are based on the same volume of water, under the assumption that any water piped into a building is ultimately drained back out again through toilets or sinks.

Some properties have septic systems and accept city water, but are not charged for using the sewer system, while other property owners have installed technology to conserve or reuse water. At Shipyard, not all water piped into the facility ultimately ends up in the sewer system, because some water is used in bottling beer.

According to a city announcement Friday, Dench toured facilities, interviewed city and water district staff and reviewed documents as part of his review. He also looked into more than 18,000 Portland accounts, specifically the 108 being billed for water but not sewer. Dench found that 12 of those accounts should be receiving sewer bills as well.

At Monday’s meeting of the City Council, Dench is scheduled to deliver recommendations for how to ensure sewer billing is done correctly moving forward. Some of those recommendations have already been implemented, according to the city, including bimonthly reviews of high water users and creation of a permit program for special submeters before they can be installed.

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