Lake Placid extends payback for sewer billing error

LAKE PLACID – Village trustees are giving some North Elba sewer customers more time to pay a combined $111,000 they were undercharged by the village due to a billing mistake, but the village’s treasurer says the logistics of the board’s repayment plan won’t work.

Meanwhile, during a recent interview with the Enterprise, Mayor Craig Randall apologized for the billing error.

At Monday night’s village board meeting, Randall said about 300 customers in districts outside the village were billed on a flat rate for sewer, a rate that technically wasn’t available to them. Basically, some people used more than 2,000 cubic feet of water per quarter but were only billed for 2,000 cubic feet.

Randall said the mistake went undetected for five quarters until a discrepancy in sewer revenue was noticed. The error was traced back to a mistake in the rate tables created by the company that set up the village’s sewer billing software, Tyler Technologies of Texas.

“Many of these fall within the range of $20 or $40, but the majority of them are in the $300 to $400 difference that’s going to have to be made up,” Randall said. “Those bills have gone out to our customers. Many of them have come in and spoken to us, and some have actually paid whatever the bill was just to get it off their backs.”

Randall said there are two very large bills that may be “special situations.” One is for $22,000 for an organization that owns apartments, and the other is a customer on Saranac Avenue that owes $12,000.

The board had previously said it would spread out payments for money owed over three quarters; “however, after meeting with numerous clients, it’s pretty apparent to me that we need to give our customers affected” more time, Randall said.

He proposed spreading the payments out over eight quarters starting in May. The payments would be on each customer’s normal quarterly bill, and there would be no late fees or interest assessed.

“We can’t forgive (the monies owed), and that’s unfortunate,” Randall said. “But we can try to make this as palatable as possible.”

Village Trustee Jason Leon asked if the village could send out separate bills, one for the payment tied to the billing mistake and the other for the normal quarterly bill.

Treasurer Peggy Mousaw said that would involve setting up separate accounts for the customers affected and transferring money between the accounts. It would be challenging, she said, because the village is short-handed right now and the next sewer bills are due to be sent out May 1.

“Considering the significance of our mistake, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of doing,” Leon said. He also suggested hosting an information session for the customers who were undercharged. “I’ve talked to many people, and they’re very upset. What I’m trying to do is provide opportunities to mitigate the impact of that mistake.”

“In all fairness, I would like to say that we didn’t make the mistake; the software company did,” Mousaw said. “But I’m ultimately responsible for it.”

Randall said he’d talk with Mousaw about setting up time in the evenings when people could meet with her.

Trustee Scott Monroe asked if the village could spot-check a couple of customers’ accounts before their bills are printed out, and provide the board with documentation of those checks.

Mousaw said spot checks are conducted, but she said the software company doesn’t have reports for abnormal billings, only for abnormal consumptions.

“There’s no report for that,” Mousaw. “We already have staff that are assigned as part of their jobs that are supposed to cross-check for abnormalities and to review those books. But you can’t check billing until you run those bills.”

Randall said the village will look into software changes that would have detected the error.

“We’re going to take every possible step to avoid this happening again,” he said.

But just as the board was poised to approve a motion allowing people to pay the undercharges over eight quarters, the proposal hit a stumbling block. Randall said people would be able to pay the amounts in one-eighth portions each quarter, but Mousaw said that isn’t possible.

“There’s no way in the system to do that,” she said. “We could put a note on that they need to pay one-eighth, but I have no way to bill one-eighth.”

“That’s another complication,” Randall said. “We’ll have to figure that out. I think we have to leave some of this with the treasurer’s office to work with the system and see what we can do best.”

Nevertheless, the board voted 4-0 to approve the longer payback period. Trustee Art Devlin was absent.

At a North Elba town board meeting earlier this month, Supervisor Roby Politi and Councilman Jack Favro said they’ve received “a lot of calls” about the billing mistake. Politi said for the most part, people have been understanding, although Councilman Bob Miller said some customers “felt blind-sided” by the news.

“It’s unfortunate that (the customers) had to read about it in the paper and then be chastised for not having reported that your bill wasn’t higher than it was,” he said.

Miller was referring to comments made by Randall and Trustee Peter Holderied at a March 25 village board meeting. Randall said at the time that people don’t generally report suspected billing errors when they are abnormally low. Holderied added that, “Nobody complains when it’s less. They only complain when it’s more.”

“They should apologize to the people that they made this error,” Miller said. “Don’t chastise them for it. Have some empathy for them.”

“That’s a poor statement,” Favro said of the trustees’ comments.

Last week, Randall told the Enterprise he’s sorry about the mistake.

“As the mayor of the village and the supervisor over the utility departments, I do apologize for it,” he said.

Staff Writer Chris Morris contributed to this report.