For the first time in the 10 years I’ve lived in Portland, I really looked at my water and sewer bill.
Normally, the bill comes in. I pay it.
The curious case of Shipyard Brewing Company and its ghost 6-inch waterline caught my attention and prompted a closer scrutiny of my own water bill.
I determined that I’ve made a mistake based on a faulty assumption that has cost me money unnecessarily. Since moving into my house, I thought I had what’s called a submeter attached to the pipes that feed two outdoor spigots.
Normally, a house or business pays a sewer bill based on the amount of water that comes in. There are some exceptions. If a house has a septic system, then it doesn’t pay for sewer services. Water used to make something — such as beer or soda — or that is used for irrigation or to fill a swimming pool doesn’t go into the sewer either.
That’s where the submeter comes it. It subtracts water that comes in but doesn’t go out in the sewer from the bill.
I’ve been paying sewer fees to water my garden, fill up the kids’ wading pool and wage Armageddon-level water balloon wars. The whole time, I was flushing money right out through the Super Soakers.
While I’ve been paying extra, Shipyard, it turns out, has been getting a break.
In 1996, Shipyard expanded its brewery to add more capacity, which required the addition of a new, 6-inch waterline.
For some reason that cannot be determined, no sewer billing account was added. The end result is that Shipyard was never billed for millions of gallons of water that flowed into the sewer system between 1996 and 2011, when the error was discovered.
Since then, a major brew-haha has developed.
The City of Portland hired Auburn attorney Bryan Dench to conduct a thorough review of the situation.
His conclusion, which was included in a report delivered to the City Council on Monday, found that somebody back in 1996 working for either the city or the Portland Water District or both made a mistake, probably based on a miscommunication about two different waterlines that feed Shipyard.
While Dench was concerned by that there weren’t better records dating back 16 years, he concluded that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing or that Shipyard knew that it wasn’t being billed properly.
In fact, he found that Shipyard had taken steps to reduce their sewer costs by installing submeters on both the older 4-inch line and the newer 6-inch line. There would have been no reason to add the submeter on the 6-inch line unless the company thought it was paying for the additional discharge.
Two people involved in the initial installation of the waterline for the city have died, and notes and records through the years don’t paint a clear picture about how the billing error happened and how it persisted for so long.
Since the error was discovered, Shipyard has been paying the full sewer bill.
Opinion in Portland is split three ways.
There are hard-core folks who think that Shipyard, and owner Fred Forsley, should pay every penny that wasn’t collected since 1996.
Others say he shouldn’t have to make up for other people’s mistakes.
The third line of reasoning is that the city and brewery should reach some sort of reasonable accommodation and settle the dispute.
During Monday’s public hearing, Bangor Daily News reporter Seth Koenig captured Forsley’s passion as he defended himself and his company: “When people question your integrity and other things, it’s very personal. When you employ 90 people in Portland, they depend on you. This is not something I take lightly.”
Shipyard Brewery has helped to build Portland’s reputation for good food and good drink. Forsley redeveloped an old industrial site into a successful business, bringing new jobs to Maine’s biggest city.
Portland has been good to Shipyard and Shipyard has been good for Portland.
This homegrown Maine company shouldn’t be put in jeopardy by a 16-year-old mistake made by someone else. No back payments should be required.
And if it helps calm Shipyard’s detractors, they can count my garden watering and water-gun wars toward the old bill.
David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. He occasionally enjoys beers brewed by Shipyard. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.