Jim and Jan Mackert have always prided themselves on paying their bills on time. But that changed in March of last year, when the Lorain residents unexpectedly received a notice from the Lorain Utilities Department: “Our records indicate that your account is overdue by the amount of $300.”
Nearly a year later, that $300 bill remains unpaid and has since grown to $395.40 with late fees. Not because the Mackerts can’t pay their bill, but because they refuse to.
When Jim Mackert built his home on West Erie Avenue in 2007, he equipped it with a 1-inch water meter. Though meter size might not sound exciting, according to Mackert 1-inch meters are an endangered breed in Lorain County. In fact, he estimated that the Utilities Department only serviced about 60 homes with 1-inch meters.
That’s because for the average home, the considerably smaller, 5/8-inch meter is cheaper and provides the perfect amount of water pressure and volume, “so long as you don’t have a pool,” Mackert said.
But as a piper fitter and technician of 40 years, Mackert worried that the 5/8-inch wouldn’t provide his home with enough water pressure, given it sits 400 feet back from the road.
“I equipped it with an oversized meter so that the water pressure wouldn’t decrease in the distance from the road to our house,” he said.
For all Mackert knew about meters, he could not have anticipated what that decision would cost him, literally and figuratively, just one decade later.
In February 2017, less than 30 days after passing a resolution to raise annual water bills, the Lorain City Council began to discuss raising the city’s monthly sewer rates, too. Under the legislation, monthly water bills would increase based on the size of a home or business’ water meter.
For the average Lorain County home with a 5/8-inch meter, the monthly rate would increase by 4,000 percent from 30 cents to $12. For the 60-some homes with 1-inch meters, the monthly rate would increase from $1 to $30.
Despite acknowledging that the fee “would not be popular,” the Council members said they had no choice but to accept the proposal. At the time, Safety-Service Director Dan Given said that if they did not pass legislation to fund improvements to the city’s water and sewer systems, the city could face as much as $180 million in fines from the Environmental Protection Agency in addition to roughly $170 million in mandatory improvements.
Anticipating that Council would accept the proposal, Mackert decided to cut his monthly bill by switching out for a 5/8-inch meter. He kept the former 1-inch meter, which he contends he purchased for $172 in 2007.
But despite the switch, Mackert received an increased bill — for $300 more. He was being billed the cost of the 1-inch meter at 2017 rates.
That didn’t make any sense, Mackert said.
“They told us that the meter belonged to the city and that we had only paid for its installation. Now they want us to return the meter or pay $300,” Mackert said.
Utilities Director Paul Wilson said that the Utilities Department does not sell meters to the general public.
“The water meter is city of Lorain property,” Wilson said. “It’s the same with gas meters. You can’t just buy them. You pay to have them installed.”
Mackert, however, held onto the receipt from when he paid for the meter in 2007 and said that at the time he was under the impression he was paying for the meter itself.
“If you look at the receipt, it is for the meter. We pointed out this error to the Utility Department, our councilman, Law Department, service director and the mayor and asked that this matter be cleared up,” he said.
There has been no resolution, however.
Mackert reported that the Utilities Department sent notices that their water service would be terminated and are adding late fees to the bill.
Councilman Josh Thornsberry, D-Lorain, said he supports the Mackerts’ position.
“The city did a very poor job of documenting what they were being billed for. The word ‘installation’ is nowhere to be found on that receipt,” he said. “A lot of our job (as employees of the city of Lorain) is fixing mistakes that were made before our time. It seems like a simple fix.”
Mayor Chase Ritenauer deferred comments on the case to Wilson.
Thornsberry, meanwhile, said the issue possibly could have been resolved during the holiday season when the City’s Legal Department looked at rewriting Section 911.528 of Lorain’s Water Rules and Regulations to create an exception for the Mackerts. The section in question asserts that customers are responsible for reimbursing the Division of Water for the loss or theft of any water meter furnished by the department.
However, instead of amending the section’s language, the city “dug its feet in” and decided to “maintain its current position” to charge $300 for the 1-inch meter, Thornsberry said.
“The city decided not to change the regulation, reasoning, ‘If we do it for one person, we’ll have to do it for them all,’” Thornsberry said, recalling the conversation.
Wilson said he’s been in the industry for 20 years and cannot recall ever running in to a similar situation.
Mackert, frustrated with the lack of resolution, wrote a letter to The Chronicle-Telegram.
“We tried everything and the government isn’t doing any good,” Mackert said. “The citizens of Lorain should not have to go to the media or take other action against the city to get a billing error resolved.”
Mackert does not expect a quick resolution, nor does Thornsberry, who described the situation as being at an impasse.
“I’m at the same point of frustration as the Mackerts,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like it needs to have gone this far.”