CMU finds few reasons for refunds at River Run

by Frank DeLoache

DAVIDSON – Since an unprecedented meeting with residents of the River Run community in November, officials with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities say they have completed reviews of 48 of the 52 homeowners who had challenged their water-sewer bills. Most of the homeowners did not receive bill adjustments.

According to a summary of those 52 cases released recently by utility officials, 10 of the homeowners – about 20 percent – received adjustments to their bills because of “spikes” that could not be explained or other administrative problems, such as an usually long billing period.

In three other cases, utility officials detected leaks in the utility’s pipes or other equipment that caused an increase in the homeowners’ bills. Those homeowners also received credit on their account.

After hearing numerous complaints in the fall from River Run homeowners, including a number of cases of excessively long billing periods, public officials, including Davidson Mayor John Woods, Davidson Commissioner Laurie Venzon, Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte and River Run resident Ron Charbonneau, who sits on the utility’s Advisory Committee, asked Utility Director Barry Gullet to hold the meeting with the homeowners.

The Nov. 20 meeting was unprecedented because Gullet arranged for officials from a number of departments to attend, including billing officials who  reviewed homeowners’ accounts on the spot. The utility has since had a similar, though less comprehensive, meeting with the Giverny neighborhood in south Charlotte.

In the summary released by Utilities Communications Manager Vic Simpson, utility officials said they had received 52 formal complaints from the 724-home country-club community. In an e-mail, Simpson gave the following account:

• 25 cases “resolved/closed without account adjustment.” Three of those homeowners did not show up for their appointment that night, and “the rest received information and/or an on-site account review and billing explanation.”

• 10 cases resulted in discovery of a leak on the homeowner’s property. “Once the leak was identified and private plumbing repair performed at the customer’s expense, these customers were eligible for and received a leak-repair adjustment,” Simpson wrote in the e-mail.

• 10 homeowners who “qualified for unexplained high-bill adjustments or other administrative adjustments,” such as correcting for the extended billing cycle, received credits.

• Three cases in which officials discovered a leak in utility equipment. In each case, the utility adjusted the homeowner’s bill.

• Four cases remain “under review.”

Mickey Pettus, president of the River Run Property Owners Association, said this week the association board “was very pleased by the responsiveness of CMU in that they realized there is a problem.”

However, Pettus said he remains “not happy at all” at the speed in which utility officials have resolved – or not resolved – the issues. Many homeowners’ frustration appears to lie in the utility’s billing and appeal system, which Gullet and others have said they intend to change over time.

But Pettus said bluntly: “It’s just taking way too long.”

At the same time, Pettus said he is frustrated with some homeowners who stopped waiting for change and simply gave up. “It’s not one thing to fix,” he added. “It’s a multitude of things to fix. Some are mechanical, and some are process. Those items take time.”

Instead, some River Run homeowners “say (utility officials) are just trying to soak some rich people,” and now some of those residents are discussing filing a class action suit, Pettus said.

“I’m not interested in getting involved in that,” Pettus said. “The fact of the matter is that they are only hurting us by taking this kind of approach. They say, ‘Gee, we’ll just sue them,’ but they’re actually hurting my property values. The utility will have to raise taxes to pay for lawyers to deal with something like that.”

Pettus said River Run homeowners will have to resolve their problems individually with the utility. He noted that 70 percent of River Run’s homeowners did not file a claim with the utility.

By e-mail, Charbonneau said he is continuing to talk to utility staff about the River Run cases. Association board member Joe Reardon also is helping Charbonneau on utility questions.

Simpson, the utility spokesman, acknowledged that River Run had “a disproportionately high quantity of specific billing issues due in part to the long (39-day) billing cycle that occurred in August 2010.”

But Simpson added, “Quite frankly, the outcome of the Nov. 20 meeting also illustrated that  lawn watering habits and the presence of many aging, larger in-ground irrigation systems in the neighborhood were also factors.”

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