Water, water issues everywhere

Published 9:05 am Wednesday, April 10, 2013

After seeing Tryon attempt to wade its way out of $50,000 of delinquent water bills, Saluda Mayor Fred Baisden said he began to ask questions of his own city.

Did Saluda have a backlog of unpaid bills?  Apparently it did, and now those issues have surfaced in the amount of $23,000.

Citizens like Karen Bultman are asking questions too. The math doesn’t seem to add up. How can you have $23,000 in passed due bills if you have an average bill of $100 a month, with connections being cut off when customers go 60 days passed due?

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Even if you add in the $100 city water deposit, you should not have anyone owing more than $300. Some of these bills are obviously several years old and were never collected; same as the situation in Tryon. But could there be some that simply were never turned off as they should have been?

Since information came out that Tryon was drowning in overdue bills, the Bulletin itself has asked questions and been asked questions. We’ve been asked, “Is it possible for the paper to get records to show who owed how much and for how long they’ve owed?”

We asked experts, and this is what we were told. According to Frayda Bluestein, an attorney with the North Carolina School of Government, utility bills are not public record – unless the government entity chooses to make them such.

North Carolina General Statute 132-1.1:

“Public Enterprise Billing Information. – Billing information compiled and maintained by a city or county or other public entity providing utility services in connection with the ownership or operation of a public enterprise, excluding airports, is not a public record as defined in G.S. 132‑1. Nothing contained herein is intended to limit public disclosure by a city or county of billing information:

(1) That the city or county determines will be useful or necessary to assist bond counsel, bond underwriters, underwriters’ counsel, rating agencies or investors or potential investors in making informed decisions regarding bonds or other obligations incurred or to be incurred with respect to the public enterprise;

(2) That is necessary to assist the city, county, State, or public enterprise to maintain the integrity and quality of services it provides; or

(3) That is necessary to assist law enforcement, public safety, fire protection, rescue, emergency management, or judicial officers in the performance of their duties …

We believe provision No. 2 provides an opportunity for both of these cities to be forthcoming with citizens about whether or not proper procedures have been followed. The key here is keeping the integrity of the departments. Have these cities cut no one’s water off in the last year or two? If they have, then how has it been decided whose taps go dry and whose keep running?

We’ve asked the cities, through Freedom of Information Act requests to provide information about bills that are delinquent beyond the standard 60 days. How many are there and how large are these bills?

For a town the size of Saluda $23,000 is a large chunk of their annual budget afterall. And although $23,000 would not fix the aging infrastructure issues the city knows it has with the water system, it could be a start.