Dominick Calsolaro

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An Albany woman finds she owes thousands of dollars for water she says she didn’t use

Published on 8/5/2010 by Metroland written by Chet Hardin

Doris Coles owes the city of Albany more than $6,000 in water and sewage fees for buildings that are unoccupied and for land that is vacant. Much of her large bill is due to a flat rate charged by Albany Water Board for houses that are unmetered, regardless of whether they are occupied or not. It is $6,000 that she said she can’t afford to pay.

Coles owns two buildings in Arbor Hill. She was living in one on 1st Street, paying her bills, when she got notice that her meter hadn’t been working properly, she said. “And they sent me a bill, telling me that they wanted to charge me $2,000, saying that I owe them for back meter.”

For her vacant building at 87 Third St., she said that she received a bill in July charging her $710 for water and $710 for sewage. This building in Arbor Hill has sat vacant for years, as she cannot afford the cost of maintaining it, she said.

“For something that I am not using,” she said. The bill also included a balance of nearly $3,000 for back fees. “Even if you are not using water at your place, if there is no meter, or if it isn’t working, then they can charge you $710 for water and sewage both.”

“Have I paid this $4,000? I can’t afford it,” she said. “If I am not using it at all, there should be no fine. And that’s a fine. They are getting rich off us poor people. And if you can’t afford to pay, they will take your property.”

Coles has owned property in Albany for more than 10 years, she said.

She said that she was told she has to get a new meter, at around $300, and have it installed in her buildings in order to avoid the $710 charge.

“But if it is stolen, you are still responsible for buying another meter,” she said. “You can board it all up and put locks all over the place, they will still get in if no one is living there. So why would you want to put a meter into a house that you are not living in and that can get stolen?”

Coles spoke before the Common Council Monday night, and was assured by the body that it would examine her complaints. Councilman Ron Bailey, who represents the 3rd Ward, told Coles that he would try to hold a meeting to air these issues. He said that he has heard similar complaints from other property owners in his district. He did not return requests for an interview by Metroland.

However, as Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro pointed out, the council has very little authority—if any—to affect what the water board does: “The water board is a separate, state authority, and it sets the rates,” Calsolaro said. The authority was created under the administration of Mayor Thomas Whalen, and it bought the municipal water system from the city. “So we don’t have any influence over what they do.”

While Calsolaro was sympathetic to Coles’ situation, he said, she ought to be able to avoid the $710 charge by simply having the water shut off to her vacant properties. “Her water has to be shut off at the main, that way they know water isn’t flowing into her building, and she doesn’t have to pay the unmetered water rate.”

“I know people who work for the water department who say that they have gone into these vacant buildings, and the water in the basement is 5 or 6 feet high,” Calsolaro said. “So the water has been running all this time, and they never followed the procedures that they were supposed to.”

Though this doesn’t help Coles now, who said that she hadn’t the slightest idea that she would be charged such a significant fee, and had not planned for the bill that she received.

“That points to the problem in Albany,” Calsolaro said. “Now she can’t pay her water bill, now she can’t pay her taxes, so she doesn’t pay them. Then they have to turn the bills over to the county. It takes three to five years for the county to take over. They can’t take over until the bank finally forecloses, and she stops paying taxes on them. The buildings just sit there. And then, when the county wants to go to auction with them, any buyer is facing a $3,000 water bill on this property, along with the past taxes? It’s a viscous cycle. That’s why we have all this decay and abandoned buildings. We need a totally better system.”