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How to use $1,003 of water — on vacation 

Ranger Rich

Gigantic salaries, huge bonuses and sneaky raises have become as common at our village-owned Utilities as, to use the old saying, "nipple rings and thongs at an El Paso County Sheriff's Office staff meeting."

While our village seems to be broke, executives at Utilities, as detailed in an Indy story last week, responded to a bonus ban ordered by our fearsome City Council by giving themselves raises. Our councilors reacted by intentionally missing a few spots as they polished the teak wood deck of Utilities CEO Jerry Forte's 600-foot yacht, the Bite Me.

As you know, our village is broke despite the hard work of Council's financial wizards. (Mayor Lionel Rivera thinks Warren Buffett is an all-you-can-eat place out on Powers.) And yet Utilities is still flush. This is because:

A. Clever use of the bond value table has allowed Utilities to reap a yield to maturity of a 20-year, 3.75-percent bond with interest payable annually.

B. Utilities has Type 2 interchangeable bonds that may be converted from coupon to registered form and back again.

C. Utilities told an older woman who is legally blind and lives in a small home with her two small dogs that her monthly water bill was $1,003 and threatened to leave her in a dark, waterless and freezing house in the middle of winter until they got their money.

The correct answer, of course, is D: Utilities offered sheriff's dispatcher Tiffany Huntz a job that includes a corner office and a photography studio.

No, actually, the correct answer is C.

Meet Virginia Hagberg, who lives just off Union Boulevard in a 1,000-square foot home owned by her daughter. Sharing the home are a Chihuahua named Sophie and a Lhasa Apso named Sadie.

Most days, Virginia uses some 10.6 cubic feet of water. About 80 gallons or so. Far less than the national average. Some days, Virginia uses as little as 67 gallons. Her typical monthly water bill: about $17.

But last Dec. 5, according to Utilities, Virginia used 4,010 gallons of water. The next day, she used some 7,000 gallons.

On ensuing days, she was told, she used upward of 9,000 gallons a day. In about a week, she was told, she used about 107,000 gallons of water.

Which came as quite a surprise to Virginia, who was visiting another daughter in Washington state that week. Her home here was empty.

There are plenty of likely explanations: Maybe a nut broke into Virginia's house and stayed in the shower for a week while keeping one arm out of the tub so he could repeatedly flush the toilet while also running the faucets on the bathroom and kitchen sinks. And doing a lot of laundry.

Another explanation — and I know this is far-fetched — is that the dim bulbs at Utilities screwed up. Or maybe the meter wasn't working properly.

As it turns out, Utilities officials claimed the meter was erring in her favor, and that Virginia likely used even more, but that they'd charge her for "only" 107,000 gallons. You know, big hearts and all.

"The first time I called, they said the lawn sprinkler system must have broken while I was gone and released all that water," Virginia says.

The home doesn't have a sprinkler system.

"The best one," Virginia recalls, "was the day they told me a pipe must have broken while I was gone, and that by the end of the week someone must have fixed it."

That makes sense. I know when my neighbors go away, I like to break into their house, fix something and not tell them about it.

Someone from Utilities even inspected the house and reported the crawl space beneath it was "dry as dust," Virginia says.

So where, in a tight-packed neighborhood, did 107,000 gallons of water — enough to fill a swimming pool 90 feet long by 30 feet wide and 5 feet deep — go?

"They said it wasn't their business or their responsibility to figure out where it went," Virginia says.

Here's the Utilities response, from spokesman Steve Berry: "The house doesn't have to be wet for a leak to have occurred. If the toilet flapper in the tank isn't functioning properly, the toilet can leak that much water in a week. We believe she still has a leak somewhere and it may be an intermittent leak and this will come up again. That amount of water is not common, but if you've got a leak somewhere and it's not attended to, this can happen. We think she had an indoor leak. Some people get it fixed and don't tell us.

"The meter was accurate. It tested fine. It was not a faulty meter, but if anything it was recording low. It was not a problem on our end."

Virginia, who has no depth perception or peripheral vision and relies on Sadie to help her navigate in crowds, says she hardly slept at night during the two-month battle with Utilities.

Last week, Silver Key Senior Services got Utilities to donate $700 from its Project COPE funds (a rainy-day fund of cash donated by altruistic ratepayers). Silver Key wrote a check for the other $303.75. And the 107,000 gallons of water were paid for.

I wondered if Virginia ever suggested to the folks at Utilities that perhaps they made a mistake? Her answer:

"A woman in customer service told me they don't make mistakes."

rangerrich@csindy.com

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