Subscribe for $3 for three months

A St. Charles resident who received an extraordinarily high water bill is disputing the amount the city says she owes.

Loretta Kelly received a bill in April for $2,043.78, covering water and sewer charges for a 77-day cycle from Dec. 20, 2010, to March 7, 2011. The city's water bills include both water consumption and the amount of water used in sewage treatment.

Kelly, who is 80 and lives alone in her home in the 2000 block of Graystone Drive, has been disputing the accuracy of the 351,000 gallons of metered water consumption the city billed her for.

"When I got (the bill) I just couldn't believe it," she said. "So the next day I passed it on to my son (Tim). He started making phone calls. But the whole month of May I had sleepless nights and nightmares. It was horrible."

Kelly sent a letter disputing the bill to the city's public works director, Debra Aylsworth, in May and met with public works officials on June 14. Following that meeting, Kelly received a letter from John Zimmerman, assistant director of public works. In the letter, Zimmerman concludes that Kelly's Neptune AMR meter was not malfunctioning and that the city could not offer an adjustment on her bill based on meter error.

Michael Spurgeon, the city's director of administration, said Mayor Sally Faith would review Kelly's claim that the bill is inaccurate and render a decision afterward.

"Does it seem like an exorbitant amount of water? Absolutely," Spurgeon said. "We will review the appeal when Mrs. Kelly makes it. I know the questions that need to be asked. We have to look at the whole picture, and I can see some relief being made here. It's a stressful situation and she said she didn't use the water."

Kelly doesn't have a pool or lawn sprinklers, and since the bill's cycle was during the winter, she wasn't doing any gardening that would have required extra water usage. She said she's confident there are no leaks inside her home and that other than a visit from her son and his family for a few days at Christmas time, she was the only person staying in the house during those 77 days.

Spurgeon said he saw customers get hit with large water bills when he previously worked for a utility company, and what makes Kelly's bill so large is that it's a combination for water and sewer usage. Zimmerman's letter to Kelly states her water usage for those 77 days amounted to a cost of $875 and that her sewer fees for that same period totaled $1,154.61.

"That's why it's so large," Spurgeon said. "We have to look at the situation and see if it can be explained."

The City Council on March 29 approved a bill to enter into a $3.2 million five-year contract with Schulte Supply Company to purchase new water meters and their components. At the time the bill passed, 5,538 meters had already been installed, including Kelly's, which she got on May 11, 2009.

From the time Kelly got the new meter to the billing cycle in dispute, all the readings in between measured her normal usage, which she claims to be about $53 per billing cycle. The city charges residential water users $2.50 for every 1,000 gallons used; the sewer rate for residents is $3.33 for every 1,000 gallons.

After she received the $2,043 bill in April, the next bill from the city, for usage between April 20 and June 14, totaled $15.95. Kelly said the two vastly different amounts is proof her meter is malfunctioning.

Before the city replaced Kelly's old Trident meter with the Neptune, her water-sewer usage between February and April 2009 had fluctuated from her normal usage. But even then her metered water consumption totaled 34,900 gallons, less than 10 percent of the bill she's disputing.

Kelly's new meter was removed for testing in May and, according to Zimmerman's letter, tested accurately at the intermediate and maximum flow rates but did not register flow at the low flow rate. That means the meter would not have recorded any water usage under low flow conditions and could not have under-read the amount of water consumed.

Tim Kelly, who lives in Houston, said he came to St. Charles to help his mother cope with what's become a stressful time. He is convinced the problem lies with the meter.

"I think there's something wrong with the flow meter assembly ... there could have been a malfunction with the meter or the transmitter as a (radio frequency) carrier," he said.

The Neptune meters send an RF signal to a city employee, who can collect the data on a laptop without having to open the meter cover and read the meter manually.

Spurgeon said this is the only case of a billing dispute concerning a city resident with a Neptune meter that he is aware of.