By John W. Goodwin Jr.
The mayor has said he will veto any attempts at forming a committee.
GIRARD — Some members of city council are calling for a committee to investigate the city-run water department, but the city’s administrators see the measure as unnecessary.
Councilman Mike Costarella has proposed legislation that would create a committee to investigate “all matters pertaining to the Girard Water Department.” The councilman said the committee could actually take over the department’s operation should areas of gross neglect or mismanagement be found.
“This problem started in 2001 and 2002 when the city first entered fiscal emergency and decided to lay off water meter readers,” Costarella said. “By state code, the city must read meters every three months and bill at least every three months.”
Earlier this summer, the city started a meter-reading campaign with the goal to read as many meters in the city as possible — every meter if possible. Water meters had not been read in five years.
Costarella said the reasoning behind the state law is simple — to give customers timely warning if they are paying for water coming into the home because of a leak or some other problem. He said customers have largely stopped phoning in readings forcing the city to estimate bills.
The councilman said the problem with so many estimated bills is that the city either overestimates or underestimates, meaning huge makeup bills for residents or refunds when the meter is actually read. He said a recent request for delinquent bills showed $657,000 in delinquent bill payments in the water district.
The city water district is projected to be in the red by about $500,000 by year’s end.
Mayor James Melfi said there is no need to form a committee to investigate or run the water department, however. He said there are specific reasons for any deficit in the department — a deficit he said will be addressed and made whole next year.
The mayor said one reason for a deficit in the water fund is the $234,000 annual payment for the Girard Lakes that must come out of that fund. He also said the city’s expenses for water have increased by 65 percent, but only 35 percent of those increases have been passed to water customers.
Another reason for the deficit, Melfi said, are internal mechanisms that failed this year causing leaks and increasing the city’s costs. Another reason offered by the mayor is the overall economy and many people simply not paying their water bills — something he predicts will get worse in the coming months.
Melfi said the city will eliminate any deficit in the water fund in the coming year with the addition of remote readers for accurate, timely reading of water meters and the most recent increase in water rates. The rates were increased by 20 percent in May.
The mayor said the deficit will be eliminated with no additional increases to customers unless the city sees increases in what it pays for water.
Costarella said he wants to see a committee put in place before he makes a decision to purchase the meters Melfi contends will help fix the water department budget.
“I want to completely understand this system and what is going on here before I decide to borrow $1.8 million against it,” he said. “I want someone with the time to look into this situation. I want some answers.”
Costarella said he speaks from first-hand experience having paid overly-estimated bills for a period of time, then receiving no bills for months, only to be hit with a $1,100 bill just recently. He said similar situations are going on across the Girard water coverage area.
Melfi said the committee idea is something brought out by former Councilman Dan Moadus and Costarella to uncover a conspiracy that Melfi says simply does not exist. He said a similar committee was formed about 20 years ago and found nothing.
The mayor has said he will veto any legislation forming a committee to oversee the water department.
“The mayor keeps wanting to personalize this as if it’s something against him, but this has nothing to do with him personally. Why would he ever consider vetoing this?” Costarella said.
Moadus, who plans to run for council next year, said he is looking for accountability to those who purchase city water.
“This is a department that deals with millions of dollars, and the people we serve have a right to know they are getting the best for their dollar and that their dollar is being used wisely. They also have a right to know there are safeguards in place, and that is something I don’t see,” he said.
Council will consider the matter at a meeting Monday.