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Taking a stand

Published May 01. 2010 09:00AM

Could Slatington residents have been overcharged on their water bills for the past 20-plus years?

A group of borough residents who have compiled records and researched the issue in depth say they have proof of it.

Currently, each housing unit in the borough is charged for a minimum of 8,000 gallons of water/sewage, regardless of how many gallons they use.

That doesn't sit well with resident Mel Gildner, who along with other concerned citizens in the borough, took it upon themselves to investigate the matter.

Gildner said a committee of borough residents formed about two years ago and collected water bills through the Right to Know Act and then collected the bills from every homeowner to review their rates.

What they found, Gildner said, is that 31 percent of homeowners in the borough paid for services they never received.

"This problem doesn't encompass me, but about 325 residents," Gildner said. "I then went back to council and said we did a study and that in this day and age of being politically correct, this must be unconstitutional and unfair."

Gildner said that despite efforts to make council aware of the situation, no action was ever taken to rectify the problem.

"We were told you pay (a certain) amount of dollars for 8,000 gallons whether you use it or not," Gildner said. "We have people who were paying for water and the service of the sewage that they never got."

Contacted Thursday, borough Manager Stephen Salvesen told the TIMES NEWS that Gildner's assessment was right on the money.

"That's an accurate statement," Salvesen said. "Use it or lose it."

Based on his calculations, Gildner said that at a rate of $30 to $40 per quarter, with the average being $35 multiplied by 1,300-plus units, the amount comes out to $40,000 a quarter, or about $180,000 a year, extra the borough received from taxpayers through the billing of the water.

In essence, Gildner said the lower-end water user is subsidizing the larger consumers use. He also noted that businesses and landlords can deduct the increase off their tax rates as an expense.

As a result, Gildner has proposed to council that the borough attempt to reimburse residents' money he believes they're owed for services that weren't rendered.

"I know we can't afford to pay them back all at one time, but, even if they could do it in $5 to $10 increments," he said. "What is the borough going to do with the $180,000 from the taxpayers?

What made matters worse, Gildner said, is that council in December voted to raise the water, sewage, and garbage rates.

The water bill is now $93, up $18 from the $75 rate; sewage costs $107, up $27 from the $80 rate, and garbage is $66 per dwelling unit, up $6 from the $60 rate.

"As taxpayers, they (borough council) have raised our rates prematurely, and totally ignored our complaints for two years and apparently they did not study what this group did," he said. "Who did they take an oath to uphold, the taxpayers, or members of the council?

At a workshop session this past Monday, Councilwoman Kris Burek made a motion to adopt a resolution that would revise the current rates.

Burek suggested residential homeowners would pay a $25 flat fee, plus $10 for every 1,000 gallons used, while non-residential homeowners would pay a $50 flat fee, plus $10 for every 1,000 gallons used.

Prior to the motion, council President Galen Freed prefaced that the matter was important enough that all council members should be present to vote. Councilmen Eldon Roberts and Russ Hoffman were absent.

At that, council on a 3-2 vote, rejected the proposed resolution, with Freed, Councilman Bryon Reed and Councilman Dan Stevens opposed. Burek and Councilman Paul Hoffman were in favor.

Gildner said the committee publicly would like to applaud Burek and Hoffman "for their honesty and saying we consciously feel this is wrong and we need to take a stand."

Contacted Thursday, Burek told the TIMES NEWS she doesn't believe homeowners should be billed for services they haven't used.

"The whole concept is you pay for what you use," Burek said. "Right now, me, as a single occupant, pays for 8,000 gallons, even though I only use 5,000 gallons per quarter."

Burek urged residents who have been adversely affected by the matter to speak their minds.

"This can change; they have to get involved and express a definitive need to the council saying you can't continue to bill me for something I don't use," she said. "Slatington is a relatively poor community, people should be watching this and getting more involved."

The matter is expected to be discussed, and possibly voted on, when council meets at 7 p.m. May 10.

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