Randolph Selex Vote To Cover $57K Water Bill
Meter Unread For Years, Racked Up Debt
An unclear policy on water metering and an eight-year lapse in reading an overlooked meter at Gifford Medical Center has cost the Town of Randolph’s village water district at least $57,312.87 in water revenue according to Randolph town officials and representatives from Gifford.
The issue began in 2010, when facilities staff at the hospital made changes to their water system to supply untreated, high-pressure water to their surgical unit for sterilization. When the changes were completed, said Gifford VP of Support Services Doug Pfohl, a new meter was installed to measure the line’s water consumption.
Accounts differ about what happened next. According Pfohl, who was not part of the Gifford team at the time, the hospital went back to normal operations, having checked local requirements for the meter.
“We went through the town zoning and permitting process,” said Pfohl. “There was no requirement for acknowledgment … in [town] policy and procedure.”
This would appear to stand in contrast to the town’s Village Water District Ordinance, adopted in early 2010.
“The town was essentially supposed to give Gifford the meter or install the meter itself. That didn’t happen,” said Randolph Town Manager Adolfo Bailon. “There was a break of procedures and protocols.”
Bailon—who was appointed town manager in Aug. 2017—explained that although town employees had been reading the hospital’s two pre-existing water meters, they had mistakenly left the new one unchecked.
“They would read the two meters and [may have] made the assumption that the third meter was internal and was not an actual meter for the water main to Gifford,” said Bailon. “There’s no way for us to figure out if the town made the error or if Gifford purposely misled the town and said ‘that was a secondary meter, don’t read it.’”
For his part, Pfohl attributes the issue to “a miscommunication between the town and our facilities team.” “We don’t have documentation for why that meter wasn’t added to their list of meters to be read,” Pfohl said. “But it was one meter that hadn’t been read since it was installed.”
Eight Years Later
The meter supplying Gifford’s surgical wing went unchecked until spring of 2018, when current Water and Wastewater Superintendent Chris Chambers visited the Gifford boiler room for a routine inspection following changes made the hospital’s water softening system.
“I noticed there was this pipe coming off before that [metering] setup,” recounted Chambers. “There was a meter way up near the ceiling—the thing was like 14 feet in the air.”
After taking a reading checking the meter’s serial number to ascertain its age, Chambers determined that, based on the number of units— measured in hundred cubic feet— Gifford had accumulated between $69,000 and $89,000 in unpaid water fees since 2010.
“My actual reaction was ‘oh great, here’s another headache,’” said Chambers, describing how the Water Wastewater Department arrived at the range that was later presented to Gifford.
“We back-checked all the [billing] quarters,” said Chambers. The department then “took the total usage and divided that out by the total quarters and that’s where we came up with our final [number]—with the bill based on rate changes.”
“We didn’t know they were racking up a water debt [and] they didn’t know they were racking up a water debt,” explained Bailon, who was informed shortly thereafter. “When that happened, we notified Gifford. We told them ‘hey, this is what the issue is and this is how much money— potentially—you could owe.”
“[We met] to assess and understand that there was really no fault in either direction,” said Pfohl, recounting initial meetings with town officials. “Neither of us were taking blame, we were just trying to understand the situation.”
Seeking an abatement for the bill, which Pfohl said was capable of putting “a huge dent into the [hosptial’s] facilities operating budget,” Pfohl said Bailon and Chambers “gave us the opportunity to prove what Gifford does for the community.”
“Gifford has been a good partner. They’ve spent money of their own to help the taxpayers and, in this case, help the water district,” said Bailon. “That’s not to say that there were not some errors there—again, we just don’t know who’s more to blame.”
Drop by Drop
After a series of discussions with Pfohl and other Gifford employees about the water debt and the level of responsibility, Bailon and Chambers decided that—given the town’s unclear policy—the task for determining the amount of fees owed to the Town of Randolph should be examined by the town’s Water/Wastewater Advisory Committee (WWAC).
Chaired by selectboard member Larry Satcowitz, the WWAC met on Sept. 21—a meeting for which neither the legally required agenda nor minutes exist on the Randolph town website.
During that meeting, Pfohl laid out Gifford’s case for having the majority, or all, of the newly discovered water debt abated based on Gifford’s contributions to the Randolph community, he said.
The Gifford-supplied list of contributions included a variety of items, including free health screenings, hosting of conferences, infrastructure improvements, as well as items such as “weed killing,” use of the Gifford Park for the Randolph Farmer’s Market, and $3,000 for a drug take-back kiosk.
“It was a very unusual situation we were faced with in the committee,” recalled committee chair Satcowitz. “We were trying to sort of make up the policy and make a decision about this all at the same time.”
Described as one of the longest WWAC meetings in memory, Satcowitz recalled at a later selectboard meeting that the discussion eventually turned toward approaching the bill with an arbitrary statute of limitations in mind.
Although no such statute of limitations for municipal water bills exists in Randolph, the WWAC settled on a billing window of three years as a starting point before reducing the dollar amount an additional 25% to account for Gifford’s contributions, according to both Satcowitz and Pfohl.
“It was just a gut feeling on the part of the water committee at that moment,” said Satcowitz. “Is that the right number? I don’t know. We should’ve been gathering more data.”
The WWAC would ultimately recommend that the Randolph Selectboard bill Gifford for just $11,687.13—an 86% reduction from the maximum billable amount discovered by Chambers five months earlier.
Expressing unease about the significant reduction, Satcowitz would later urge the selectboard to vote against his committee’s recommendation, as he and fellow selectboard member Matt Fordham would ultimately do on Oct 15—the only two members of that body to do so.
“[The committee] should’ve just said ‘you know what, we don’t have time to fully explore this, we need some more time to think about it,” said Satcowitz last week. “It just didn’t occur to anybody to make that suggestion.”
For his part, Town Manager Bailon asserts he would have preferred to bill Gifford the full $69– 89,000, but admits some responsibility for the incident still rests on the town’s shoulders.
“Did we do what we could have to make sure that we installed the meter properly or that we participated in the installation of the meter?” asked Bailon. “We have found that we did not.”
For Pfohl, who said the Gifford team “would’ve loved to see this abated completely and zero’d out,” the incident has become an object lesson in Gifford “making right with the town.”
“It was a tough thing to come across my desk but we … understand that there’s still some ownership,” he said. “We did use that water.”
Lastly, Chambers—the man who discovered the undocumented meter in Gifford’s boiler room—asserts his department, though stung financially, maintains a good working relationship with Gifford.
“We weren’t looking to be totally spiteful,” recalled Chambers. “But at the same time, you know, here’s your—I will say—the biggest user and probably the company that has the most money in town, getting water and wastewater rates … at a discounted measure that the rest of the village had to kind of pay for.
“That was the only thing that kind of sucked,” he added. “Granted, if we had been billing right along, they probably would’ve been paying right along.”