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Coming to a boil
Submitted by Glenn Gullickson on Wed, 02/15/2017 - 12:00am
Buckeye water official resigns
As Buckeye’s longtime water director resigns his job, a group that has been disputing high water bills is renewing its effort to remove the city’s mayor.
Dave Nigh, who was at the center of the controversy over disputed water bills, resigned as the city’s water director effective Feb. 25 after about 10 years with the city, according to Annie DeChance, a spokeswoman for Buckeye.
She said the resignation was agreed to by Nigh and the city at the end of January. No reason was given for Nigh’s resignation.
Nigh was placed on paid administrative leave Dec. 8 after the city was buffeted with complaints by scores of residents who claimed they had been billed for hundreds of dollars for thousands of gallons of water they said they didn’t use.
Nigh’s removal had been a goal of an organization formed by residents, and now they face a March 22 deadline to gather 1,718 signatures, which would trigger a recall election of Mayor Jackie Meck, who was re-elected in August.
Jeff Hancock, organizer of Buckeye Residents Against High Water Bills, said a September 2005 West Valley View article about disputed water bills proves the city has had a longstanding problem.
In the decade-old story, Meck, who was then a councilman, said the city needed to correct bills that were as large as $86,000.
“Jackie Meck is now our mayor,” Hancock told a group of residents at a meeting on Feb. 11.
“This just goes to show you this had been going on a long time,” he said. “This is not a brand new problem.”
In a telephone interview with the View, Meck said the 2005 water billing problems occurred when Buckeye was experiencing large population increases and the city was installing 6,000 meters a month.
He said the similarities between the 2005 issue and the current problem are that they both occurred when the city was growing and after a water rate increase.
“We know for a fact we’ve had bad readings,” Meck said, noting that nine meters had failed. “We have some issues with meters that were put in quite some time ago.”
Hancock said he doesn’t know how many signatures have been gathered since the recall petition effort started late last year, but he expressed frustration with the campaign’s progress.
He said there haven’t been a lot of volunteers willing to gather petition signatures.
While Hancock has been the driving force behind the group, he revealed that he can’t circulate or even sign the petition since he hasn’t registered to vote in Buckeye after moving to the city in August.
Hancock said he was discouraged with the turnout of about 50 people at the most recent meeting, about half the number of people who came out in October for the first meeting about high water bills.
Since then, the city has established a hotline to field complaints about water bills in a community of about 60,000 people with about 20,000 water accounts.
According to the city’s most recent report posted on its website, cases covering 270 complaints have been closed and 106 remain in progress.
The report indicated 78 bills had been adjusted after review.
Nigh was quoted as saying it was cheaper for the city to make refunds to clear the disputed bills than to investigate the issues behind the water bills.
On its website, the city stated, “We fully acknowledge that the initial response to our customers’ concerns about increased rates and usage spikes are not acceptable.”
Factors causing the situation were blamed on staff mistakes, poor service from a billing contractor and irrigation and plumbing problems.
The city has hired three customer service representatives and a supervisor to fully staff the department, DeChance said.
Hours have also been adjusted to serve customers, but occasionally tempers get so heated at the billing counter that a police officer is called in, DeChance said.
“It always settles them down,” she said.
Roger Klingler, interim city manager, said the city continues to work with people who call the hotline.
He said there isn’t an overall problem, but a variety of individual issues.
“We’re going to resolve each and every one of these [complaints],” Klingler said.
DeChance said water usage audits give customers and the city learning opportunities.
“We’ve learned a lot from this,” she said. “We’re hearing from customers about things to do better.”
But the city’s efforts haven’t satisfied Hancock and his group, which has about 1,700 followers on social media.
“It seems like the city is still not taking us seriously,” Hancock said. “We know there’s a problem with their billing. Everything hasn’t added up.”
If a recall of the mayor is successful, Hancock said his group would target other longtime members of the City Council.
“The problem is a lot bigger than we all think,” Hancock said. “I believe it starts at the top and goes all the way to the bottom.”
He also said news coverage of the issue could have an impact on the city’s future.
“No one will want to come to Buckeye,” he said.
If there is a recall election, Hancock said he has two people in mind to oppose Meck, including a former council member, but he wouldn’t name the potential candidates.
He encouraged people to file consumer complaints with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.
Hancock and others spoke during the call to the public portion of last week’s City Council meeting, which Meck said he missed because he was in Colorado on city business.
Hancock said he hopes to get on the agenda for a meeting in March.
Mark Seamans, water resources manager, was named interim water manager when Nigh was placed on leave.
To report water billing issues, contact the city’s hotline at 623-349-6900.
Glenn Gullickson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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