Here’s a heartwarming tale to take you into the holidays: A Natick senior recently appealed her unusually high water and sewer bill, and the Select Board couldn’t deny the longtime resident’s compelling story.
Rita Aude, who her son Robert Audi described as being widowed and disabled, is a 30-year resident of the town living on a fixed income (Note: their last names are spelled slightly differently). When she received a shockingly high water and sewer bill in $4,745 in February she soon after contacted the town, which visited the property and determined a toilet was constantly running. Aude had a plumber fix the problem the next day.
Unfortunately, the new quarter was already underway, so the bill for that period came in high, too, at $1,490. Aude’s typical bills were for $90-$150 per quarter, and her water usage returned to the normal level once the plumbing issue was fixed. The overall bill for the 2 quarters would have accounted for about 25% of her yearly income from social security.
It turns out that the running toilet was in a seldom-used half bathroom attached to Aude’s bedroom. “Had we known we would of course repaired the toilet right away, knowing that it was putting out close to 1,500 gallons of water every day at its peak,” Audi said. His mother uses the main bathroom, which is outfitted with handrails, not the half-bath, described by the son as being akin to an airplane restroom in size.
The town issued what Town Administrator Jamie Errickson termed a “tighter” water and sewer abatement/adjustment policy effective in mid-2021. It was designed to make decisions for town officials less subjective and more clear, which among other things helped the Natick shrink its backlog of abatement requests.
The town rejected Aude’s initial request for abatement for not meeting its criteria, but steered an appeal of that decision to the Select Board, which serves as Natick’s water and sewer commissioners and can use its discretion in deciding on such matters. That’s what brought Robert Audi all the way from Sturbridge to Natick for a nighttime Select Board meeting on Nov. 16. (view discussion about 45 minutes into the Pegasus recording).
The Select Board considers the case
Following Audi’s statement, which included his mention of joining the Natick WaterSmart Program to get alerted if his mom’s water or sewage usage spikes, the Select Board members mulled the issue. Errickson explained that 1 option would be charging a resident whose case is legit a lower rate similar to their usual rate. In Aude’s case, that would have reduced her bill by a couple thousand dollars, and a motion was made to do that.
But then another motion was made to abate a full $6,000, leaving Aude to pay her usual amount.
Select Board member Michael Hickey said he’s always been sympathetic to this sort of situation. After hearing about the circumstances and that Audi had traveled east to help his mother (“what a nice son”), Hickey said: “I could not in good conscience expect this resident to pay anything approaching anything with four figures…”
Board member Rich Sidney, who made the motion to abate $6,000, said “We have here an elderly person who is trying desperately to stay in her house. This is something we’ve called our values for years, and we want to support her ability to stay in town and live her life. I think this is an unusual situation—she fixed the problem as soon as she knew about it, it’s not like she let it go for months. That would change my mind. I’m very empathetic to the circumstances.”
Board member Kathryn Coughlin, also in support, said “It’s really good to have anchoring values in… a political philosophy. But when it comes to applying that in a very specific situation with human beings and real world circumstances, it’s good to be able to reconsider.”
Bruce Evans, another board member in support of the big abatement, said “Policies are pieces of paper, people are people.”
Chair Paul Joseph made the decision unanimous, though acknowledged he’s previously voted against abatements, citing homeowner responsibility
“Consider this your compensation for advertising the WaterSmart Program on behalf of our community,” he quipped.
(In fact, I signed up the day after I heard this session.)