Bamboozled: In deep with water bill

What can you do with 100,000 gallons of water?

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, you’d need to shower non-stop for 28 days to use 100,000 gallons of water.

A standard bathroom toilet would give you nearly 77,000 pushes on the lever.

Or you could fill a 12 foot by 24 foot swimming pool with a 4.5 ft. average depth more than 10 times.

And it would take a room 30 feet long by 30 feet wide by 15 feet high to fit 100,000 gallons. And 100,000 gallons would cover an acre of land in 3.7 inches of water.

Interesting, yes?

Well, the township of Cedar Grove says one homeowner used nearly 100,000 gallons of water in a three-month span.

Kirit Kothari’s home has two water meters: one for the home itself, and a second one for the sprinkler system.

In early April 2011, Kothari received his two quarterly bills from the town to cover January, February and March.

The bills would normally come on a post card, but this time, the sprinkler bill came on a post card and the home’s water bill came in an envelope.

Kothari opened the envelope for the home’s water bill, which usually ran between $110 and $115 every three months.

“When I opened the envelope I said, ‘Wow!’ and I laughed,” he said. “I told my wife to look at this and she laughed, too.”

It was a bill for $10,457.90 for three months of water and sewer charges.

The Kotharis don’t have a home teeming with multi-day-shower teenagers. It’s just the two of them, and the home does not have a pool. (Not that a homeowner would fill a pool in the winter months, anyway.)

It’s no longer a laughing matter.

A Response, Please!

Kothari called the township, which sent a technician to the home the next day.

The tech said two of Kothari’s toilets had small problems — one was “hissing” and a second had a handle that required a “jiggle” so that it wouldn’t run.

They also removed the water meter — which was first installed in 1987 and had not been inspected since installation, records show — for testing. It was replaced with a new one.

Kothari said he asked Michael Jorn, the head of the water department, if he thought it was possible to use 993,000 gallons of water in just one quarter, even with two leaky toilets.

“He said, ‘I don’t think so,'” Kothari said.

While waiting for the results of the water meter testing, Kothari said, he called a plumber to correct the toilet issues and to look through the whole home for any water problems.

The plumber found nothing, Kothari said. Not even a hiss or a jiggly handle. No repairs were made.

To Kothari, that meant for certain it was a meter error.

He said he reached out to town officials, and they said he should wait for the results of the water meter test.

Time passed and the next quarter, the home’s water bill returned to normal, reinforcing Kothari’s belief that the one-time mega-bill was a mistake.

Not so, said the town.

In August, Kothari said, Michael Jorn returned to the home with the test results.

“They tested the meter and they said the meter worked fine,” Kothari said. “I asked Michael Jorn if he thought it was possible for the meter to malfunction one time and he said yes.”

Kothari asked Jorn to share his opinion with the township.

“He said, ‘I can’t unless you subpoena me, and then I can tell what I think,'” Kothari said.

Kothari finally decided to hire an attorney. In October 2011, the attorney sent a letter to township officials, restating the facts and asking them to reconsider the bill.

The attorney also requested the town hang on to the meter in question pending a resolution of the billing issue.

No one from the township answered the letter.

Kothari said he went to the November town meeting to request the bill be reconsidered. No immediate answers were given.

More time passed.

“Every quarter I went to pay my bills, and I’d ask town clerk when the town was going to reply (to the requests),” Kothari said. “She said, ‘I have no idea.'”

Through the fall and the winter, and Kothari’s bill stayed in the normal range for the home.

On February 27, 2012, Kothari’s attorney sent another letter.

Finally on March 27, 2012, the township responded.

It said: “At a Staff Meeting of the Governing Body held on September 19, 2011, your client requested that the Governing Body reconsider its prior decision to decline to make an adjustment to the water bill. After further consideration, the Governing Body has decided to not take any further action regarding the invoice.”

Eight months after the meeting, Cedar Grove answers?

Kothari’s attorney responded on April 20, once again asking the town to preserve the meter. He also said Kothari was willing to settle the issue by paying half the bill — $5,228.95.

Kothari said he didn’t want to settle, but he was willing because his attorney fees would have cost more than the water bill.

The township, again, did not respond.

Then in May, Kothari received a shut-off notice, instructing him to pay the full balance by June 19 or the township would shut off his water.

Kothari and his attorney went to the June 18 township meeting and asked for more time to have additional inspections and another check of the old water meter.

The township gave Kothari three more days to pay, and promised that if the investigation was in Kothari’s favor, the township would return the payment.

That’s when he asked Bamboozled for help.

Looking for Answers

We reached out to the township officials who didn’t respond immediately, and the clock was ticking.

On June 21, Kothari paid the $10,457.90 bill.

“I wrote on the check, “Payment under protest,'” Kothari said.

After the bill was paid, we finally touched base with town manager Tom Tucci.

Tucci said the meter test is all the township has to go on. He said it had another recent case where the bill was $9,900, and the investigation, which took many months, found the homeowner had a water pipe open under the ground.

But, we said, the Kothari bills went back to normal in the very next quarter. Did that happen for this other homeowner?

No, Tucci said.

We asked if it was possible that a one-time malfunction happened.

“It’s possible. Not likely, but it’s possible,” he said. “If the meter was lying it would have come out when the meter was tested. Maybe there was a leak and maybe it was fixed. I don’t know what the circumstances were.”

So then, the burden is on the homeowner to prove he did not have a leak? Kothari said his plumber didn’t have to fix anything. Not even the reportedly leaky toilets, much less an underground pipe.

Tucci also agreed that two leaky toilets wouldn’t account for the large bill. Something else had to be wrong.

“If the water meter is faulty we would gladly give this guy a refund, but we can’t give a refund without any substantiation,” he said. “We can’t do it on a whim because we have to answer to the other ratepayers.”

Tucci said he didn’t know if the township still had the meter in question, but that water head Michael Jorn would know.

Jorn confirmed the results of the meter test.

“It is possible for a mechanical device to malfunction. Did this one malfunction? I don’t know,” he said, noting that something had to happen for the bills to go back to normal. “Something intervened to change that outcome. Was a leak fixed? Was water turned off? I don’t know. The township doesn’t know.”

And we may never know. Jorn said the old Kothari meter was “recycled.”

We’ll let you know what happens with Kothari’s legal case.