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In Newton, Somerville, ‘catch-up’ water bills catch many off guard, with some owing thousands

Newton City HallJosh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

For four years, Newton has sent residents water bills based on estimated usage, not the actual amount. Now, as city employees go door to door checking the exact readings as they replace thousands of water meters, some residents are receiving retroactive bills that might drain their rainy day funds.

As city officials survey the meters and send out updated bills, some residents say they have been stunned to realize they owe thousands of dollars, according to a petition. Marc Heimlich, who started the petition, said he received a bill for $15,000 just before Thanksgiving that is due in the middle of December. A neighbor received a $65,000 bill, he said.

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“The city should not penalize residents for their inability to collect accurate meter reads for the past four years and residents should have more than 30 days to reconcile with the city to determine how the overage was incurred and applied and whether it is due to a leak or inaccurate reporting,” the petition states.

On Wednesday, the city’s mayor, Ruthanne Fuller, said that for years the city used meter-reading transmission units to collect water usage data remotely. But in 2019, a significant number of the units “began to malfunction and did not transmit readings,” Fuller said by email. But the water meters themselves continued to work fine, she said.

Since then, many residents have received water bills based on estimated use. Residents could submit a reading from their meter so the city could “adjust their bill to reflect actual usage,” but those who did not may have received a “catch-up bill,” Fuller said.

“So far, approximately 5 to 10 percent of residents are seeing large catch-up bills when the new meter/transponder is installed,” Fuller said.

Fuller said the city is offering residents who are facing large bills two payment options — spreading the balance equally over 12 months, or make minimal monthly payments for 11 months with a balloon payment in month 12. Neither option charges interest, Fuller said.

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Residents who have paid too much can take a credit or receive a refund.

The city is working to install new water meters and reading devices at all homes and businesses, Fuller said. The project began in the spring and is scheduled to be complete in fall 2025.

Over in Somerville, some residents have found themselves in a similar situation after the city began a widespread replacement of older residential water meters. City Council president Ben Ewen-Campen said that from what he understands, some older meters stopped transmitting readings to the city. In these cases, the city sent estimated water and sewer bills instead, he said by email.

Once new water meters were installed, people may have received one-time “correction” bills to account for the previous usage, he said.

”In some cases, the city overestimated your water usage, so you get a credit. For others, the city underestimated water usage for a significant amount of time, and that’s where we’re seeing people with whoppingly large bills,” he said.

Earlier this month, officials expressed concern after residents complained that they felt blindsided by the larger bills, and the City Council discussed the matter at a recent meeting.

Ewen-Campen said he can understand the frustration, since the estimated bills had “no warning” that people would later be charged the correct amount besides an “E” in one column of the bills.

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”They didn’t do anything wrong. They got a water bill in the mail and they paid it, fair and square,” he said. “The city’s equipment failed and then without warning these residents got a huge water bill.”

The city’s water and sewer department has updated its website to explain the issue more clearly, he said.

”The reason we’re in this mess in the first place is because a lot of old water meters stopped working, and the sooner they are fixed the better,” he said. ”I personally wish that these large one-time charges could simply be forgiven,” he added, “but my understanding is that state law prevents that.”

Steve Annear contributed to this report.





Talia Lissauer can be reached at talia.lissauer@globe.com. Follow her on Instgram @_ttphotos.