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Published: Tuesday, 10/2/2001

Error boosts storm-water utility bills


A storm-water billing system that couldn't differentiate between concrete and gravel has cost Toledo commercial property owners thousands of dollars in overcharges.

Yesterday, two city council members criticized the Finkbeiner administration for failing to take affirmative steps to alert property owners that bills for the new storm-water utility may have been inflated.

The city bills commercial property owners based on the square footage of roofs and paved parking lots. That's because rainwater flows from those surfaces directly into ditches and sewers, while much of the rain that falls on soil and gravel is absorbed in the ground.

The agency used aerial photographs taken from two miles up to determine whether a lot was hard-surfaced or not.

In a few cases, gravel lots and even open fields were misidentified as concrete or asphalt, city officials acknowledged.

At-large council members Gene Zmuda and Betty Shultz criticized the city for leaving it up to property owners to discover they were over-billed.

They said the problem was revealed largely because a local engineering firm contacted property owners and offered to analyze their bills. “The city needs to act now to inform property owners of a mechanism to review their bills,” Mrs. Shultz and Mr. Zmuda said in a statement. “It is unconscionable to force Toledoans to pay consultants to correct mistakes made by Toledo's own consultant.”

Jerry Sawicki, president of Sawicki Realty, said he was suspicious of the billings when he was charged for an overgrown vacant lot, and he hired a consultant to measure his property. He said he saved more than $680 a year on one of his properties.

“They should have known. That would have been known if they had done cross-checks. This has done nothing but create additional mistrust in local government,” Mr. Sawicki said.

The Finkbeiner administration said it was working on correcting the problem when the two council members held their news conference. The city intends to visit the 200 highest-billed commercial owners to double-check the aerial photo interpretation, and will send letters to all other commercial owners to urge them to review their bills, David Moebius, the commissioner of utilities, said.

At-large Councilman Peter Gerken, who chairs of the environment and utilities committee, said the over-billings are “old news.” He said the administration agreed Sept. 21 that the city would immediately measure the top 200 accounts.

The overbillings were attributed to the difficulty of interpreting aerial photographs supplied by Lucas County Auditor Larry Kaczala.

John Damico, president of Environmental Rate Consultants, Inc., of Union, Ky., which set up the system, said the city contracted with the University of Toledo, which provided engineering students as part of their work-study requirement to interpret the pictures.

Mr. Damico said the number of misjudged parcels is only about 100 out of 30,000 commercial properties.

Mr. Kaczala said the geographic information system is considered one of the finest in the world, but he said county assessors check every property to verify information they get from the aerial photos.

Mr. Damico said it would have been very expensive to measure every property in person.

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