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Hardship cited over $25,000 water bill

NORTH TONAWANDA – April Howard had been teaching in England for several years when she got a shocking water bill from the City of North Tonawanda.

Apparently her vacant house at 532 Payne Ave. had used 3.38 million gallons of water over an unspecified time period, racking up a bill of nearly $26,000.

Howard’s attorney, Daniel E. Brick, said in an appeal to the Common Council that the bill is not only an extreme hardship, but may be more than the value of the property itself in its present state.

On Tuesday night, the Council agreed to forgive a portion of the bill – $7,500 – which was far less than Howard’s attorney had sought.

According to police report from Jan. 30, the high water bill was the result of a burst pipe that flooded the basement, and Howard had no insurance on the vacant house. Howard told police that she had shut off the water a year and a half ago, but a city code-enforcement officer found that the water had been turned on and shut it off at the main when Howard contacted the city.

Brick said the homeowner believes that someone had broken into the house.

Brick told the Council in a letter of appeal that Howard wanted to transfer the house to someone who will make the repairs, but was unable to do so because of the damage.

He told The Buffalo News that with no tenants, the house had been winterized. Howard also had believed that someone was watching over the house in her absence. “Someone broke in,” Brick said. “Stuff had been stolen.”

Brick said his client acknowledges that the water ran through the meter and that it was hard to ask the city to forgive that portion, but he asked that the sewer portion of the bill be dismissed. “The water just went down a floor drain. It never went through the sewer system,” the attorney said.

City Attorney Shawn P. Nickerson said prior to the Council meeting that Brick had been looking to have the entire sewer portion forgiven, about $16,000 to $17,000, but after some informal discussion, the Council agreed to forgive $7,500.

Nickerson said the city very rarely reduces bills and only if certain criteria are met.

“It has to be a hardship,” he said. “A $25,000 bill is a hardship for anybody. They also have to show that the cause of the bill was not due to the cause of the homeowner. In Mr. Brick’s letter, he sent some documentation that someone had broken into the house and caused a whole bunch of damage, which contributed to this substantial bill.” Nickerson said that another big factor is allowing Howard to settle the debt so the house could change hands. “The house is really in disarray. As a city, we are hoping for someone else to come in and renovate this house,” he said.

“Whatever they can do,” Brick said of the agreed-upon reduction. “The house needs some work, and it needs to get done. She’s always paid all the taxes so there’s nobody taking a beating here.”

Brick said Howard, who had owned the house since 1978, “just got overwhelmed by what happened.”

“It was something she didn’t bargain for,” he said. “Unfortunately, she didn’t have any homeowner’s insurance to cover the vandalism.”

email: nifischer@buffnews.com