After more than 18 months, dispute over a residential water bill totaling more than $21,000 for the months of June, July and August 2020 has come to an end.
High water usage at a house owned by Mark Franta started shortly after work on the $8.9 million infrastructure project in Winnebago began near 215 2nd Avenue Northwest in April 2020.
Following a lengthy discussion, City Council members voted 2-1 to settle the matter by charging the highest usage rates for three months prior to when the leakage began.
Councilmen Tim Hynes and Calvin Howard voted in favor, while Council member Jean Anderson cast the dissenting vote.
That means the city will collect about $300, rather than the $17,545 recommended by the city’s Utility Committee after fees were waived.
“We (council) just wanted to get this behind us and get it done,” says Mayor Scott Robertson. “This happened before I was elected last November.”
“I would like to have split the bill with them (Holtmeier Construction). I think we should have both shared in it,” adds Robertson.
With a 10 percent late fee being assessed monthly the amount owed quickly grew to more than $50,000. As in previous months, the renter of the house kept paying the monthly amount normally due which was about $90.
Robertson says a water department employee contacted Franta as soon as the city noticed high gallons of water being used at the residence.
However, he was on vacation so a phone message was left and after that it’s not clear what happened.
“It (the bill) fell through the cracks and wasn’t addressed. In the future we have to make sure we stay on it,” says Robertson.
Council members agreed the water line in the basement more than likely was broken when construction crews were working on the road. But, it would be difficult to prove.
Bolton & Menk engineer Matt Cole says Holtmeier Construction isn’t going to admit that it was their fault.
“They’re not going to pay half of the bill if their insurance company won’t pay,” he says.
A water line no longer in use was capped but it came off and more than 147,000 gallons of water was metered the first month and 851,000 gallons the next month.
“It is a real coincidence that it happened during construction. We have chased insurance companies but nothing has happened,” says Robertson.
Hynes says he wishes that the problem would have been dealt with more promptly and just wants it to be over.
“I view it as a construction issue that the construction company doesn’t want to pay for it and Mr. Franta doesn’t want to pay for it,” he says. “You can’t come up with $20,000 water bills and expect people to come up with that.”
Howard seemed puzzled as to how nobody was able to notice such a large leakage in the house.
“To have 800,000 gallons of water go through the house, that’s a lot of water,” he says. “That’s four swimming pools worth.”
The area where the leakage was occurring, says Franta, is a small crawl space containing no appliances or any equipment.
Franta says he couldn’t hear water leaking when he entered the house and discovered the problem when he opened the trap door to the basement.
“This is property I’ve owned for about seven and a half years with no problems like that,” he says. “We’ve had two incidents within less than three months.”
Franta says he has called the insurance company many times but has not gotten a response.
If the insurance company and Franta don’t want to pay the bill, says Anderson, why should the city?
Anderson expressed concern that the council might be setting a precedent of allowing utility bill adjustments too easily.
Some on the council felt the case was different and unique because the problem resulted from a project that was contracted and paid for by the city.
“I understand you have to worry about a precedence. But, a $17,000 water bill. How are you going to pay that? That’s crazy,” says Howard.
Anderson suggested that Franta pay about $6,000 of the bill, which would be a portion of the water bill and half of the sewer.
“He should be glad he doesn’t have to pay the full $17,000,” she says. “It might be a little over the top, but I think it’s fair for everybody.”