By Karen Frantz
Customers who receive abnormally high water bills and enter into a payment program with the city Department of Environmental Protection to pay off what they owe forfeit their right to dispute their bills, a fact underlined in a new city public advocate’s guide to understanding and contesting water bills.
“If you qualify for [the] assistance program and enroll in it, you must enter into a binding agreement with DEP — admitting your debt is valid,” the six-page guide says.
The tip in the pamphlet, published last Thursday, highlights what Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said is an unfair policy that bullies people into paying money..
“No homeowner or business should be forced into a settlement while an appeal is still in progress,” said de Blasio in a statement to TimesLedger Newspapers. “This is clearly about revenue, not fairness. These pressure tactics force customers to settle bills they may not even owe.”
A representative with the public advocate’s office said people who may have legitimate water bill disputes but cannot afford to pay their bills upfront as required while waiting through the multi-month review may be forced to enter into the payment plan, thereby losing their ability to claim foul.
The policy is particularly onerous when coupled with the fact that some people have complained of receiving bills that have spiked many times in cost, and customers who do not pay face late charges and sale of property liens to a third party even when in the midst of an appeal, the official said.
“We have homeowners facing foreclosure because [of] these lien sales — and all for bills that are still being actively disputed,” said de Blasio.
An official at the DEP responded, however, that in order to have a legally binding payment agreement, both sides must recognize the validity of the bill. The official also said payment in full is always encouraged because interest will accrue on an outstanding balance, and all payments including interest are returned to the customer if a dispute is in his or her favor.
The official also contradicted the charge that DEP sells liens if there is an active dispute, saying that is not the case.
De Blasio is pushing for a piece of legislation that would prohibit a lien from being sold when a bill is in the appeals process, the public advocate’s representative said. The guide also briefly mentions the legislation.
The public advocate’s new guide will be distributed to city residents and businesses with the help of 23 elected officials who serve the city and the Presidents Co-op and Condo Council, a think-tank comprised of more than 60 condominium and co-op presidents.
Reach reporter Karen Frantz by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.