City refuses to adjust water bill that rose from $35 to $528

A water system customer showed up at the Franklin City Council meeting Tuesday to protest a more than $500 bill.

Rillius Fitch said he received the bill for his 1209 Main St. home and was shocked to see it was $528. His bill has routinely been $35.

Fitch said he went to city hall and was told the meter would be reread. After that, Fitch says, the city said the meter was accurate and reflected 100,000 gallons of usage.

He then met with utilities director Dainae Prejean, who reportedly told him his meter had been replaced and “that I had a faulty meter for years and I always got a zero reading. That’s as it should be, because this is a vacant house. There was no water usage there. I asked if the city was playing catch-up with my water bill, and they said no.”

He also met with the mayor, who he said determined Fitch had never been on a disconnect list and always paid his bill.

“I’ve heard from the attorney and from the mayor that the law states a bill cannot be adjusted unless the city was at fault or in error,” he said.

Fitch calculated the loss amounts to two gallons a minute every minute for 31 days, or enough to fill five swimming pools. “I have no leaks and nothing was on,” he said. Fitch mentioned that city officials treated him with professionalism and courtesy.

He said his next bill was back to $35. Three other persons have told Fitch they have also experienced dramatically high water bills, he claims.

“The city is asking me to believe something that is just unbelievable,” he said. “The possibility was raised that somebody was stealing water, well, we must have some very dedicated water thieves.”

He said he did not enter the house once during the billing cycle, and usually is only there a couple days a month.

Prejean said there have been “extensive service orders” for the residence since the bill complaint arose. She said she has personally gone to the residence and sent several meter reader supervisors as well. The meter was pulled and calibrated and given a trial run, which the meter passed.

It was installed April 4. The bill was sent out in September.

She presented photos that reportedly showed new PVC fittings on outside plumbing, two faucets, that she said she believed had new PVC fittings installed recently. She also said the ground was “very, very saturated. Now again, 100,000 gallons could not have occurred at one time, it was a steady flow.”

Prejean said she was sure the meter was accurate.

“Do these pictures show the saturation in the yard?” Councilman Eugene Foulcard asked. Prejean said they did not. “I didn’t actually show those pictures,” she said.

“There have been no repairs,” Fitch countered. “That is absolutely untrue, unless someone volunteered to do it. My yard has never been saturated…I dispute the veracity of that statement with all respect to Mrs. Prejean.”

Councilman Dale Rogers asked what a running toilet would mean in a month’s water use. Prejean said only that when she went out the ground was saturated. “I put on my flip flops and I walked around (the yard) and I took pictures of my feet and it was totally saturated.”

Councilman Chuck Autin said, “I find it very excessive. I walked in his yard too. The man’s moving from Jeanerette to Franklin. Welcome,” he remarked.

Fitch said pipes were originally installed 10 years ago, and a repair was made two years ago after a freeze.

He added that “two city officials and I felt like I was being dissuaded from speaking to the city council on this issue. The comment was made that all that would be accomplished is that I would cast the city in a bad light, and it would make me look like a man who does not want to pay my bill. And that’s the most accurate piece of information I’ve gotten in all this: I do not want to pay that bill.”

Prejean said payment arrangements can be made. Fitch replied that he had already paid $135 to avoid being disconnected.

“Federal law mandates that I cannot adjust a bill but I can make payment arrangements,” she said. “If we could I would gladly have made adjustments.”

“There’s no fault on the city’s part,” Mayor Raymond Harris said. “Something out of the ordinary happened. We all agree on that. What, nobody knows. I don’t know that we have grounds to make an adjustment.”

“But we’re putting all the burden on the citizen,” Rogers said.

“We can’t assume the burden,” Harris said. “Our equipment works, the readings are accurate. We can’t assume the liability. If we were at fault we would have adjusted it…it’s not that I don’t want to help Mr. Fitch, I had Prejean go there over and over again…it just wasn’t there.”

The council held no further discussion or took action.

In other business Tuesday:

—Police Chief Sabria McGuire recommended the city install 25 mph speed limit signs – the current ordinance specification – and “children at play” signs on Ibert Street after a traffic study.

—Ordinances were introduced changing the name of Fourth Street to Oneal-Chube Street; amending the operating budget, and allowing for an act of sale/exchange for the E.A. Crowell Building that currently houses city offices but is owned by the school board. The price is $35,000.

A finance committee meeting will be held next week to discuss that issue.

—The council approved a resolution for Red Ribbon Week, Oct. 21-30 this year.

—Mayor Harris sent compliments to all persons involved in Tour du Teche, Techeland Arts Council and St. Mary Landmarks in a series of weekend events held over the last two weekends.

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