Rockvale residents form union, protesting high water bills

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Nico Savidge
Friday, October 25, 2013

TOWN OF ROCK—For the first seven months of the year, bills from one lot in Rockvale Mobile Home Park, 6219 S. Highway 51, showed residents there used about 2,200 gallons of water each month, on average.

When they got their next bill in September, though, the residents were in for a surprise: Between Aug. 9 and Sept. 16, the residents were told they used 7,300 gallons of water.

From averaging less than 75 gallons each day, they'd apparently used more than 190 per day in August and September.

Their bills shot up, too, going from an average of $33 per month before the switch to $91 after.

These residents weren't the only ones to notice a spike in their water bills through August and September. Dozens of Rockvale residents have complained about the bills to Sue Sexe, the acting chairwoman of a tenants union at the mobile home park.

The union was originally formed in July to address poor service from the mobile home park's previous water utility, Sexe said, as well as a litany of other issues she has with the park's management: Milwaukee-based Asset Development Group.

Now, though, Sexe hopes by bringing more attention to the cause and filing complaints with state authorities, the water bills she said are inaccurate could be reduced.

Residents from about 60 of the park's more than 400 lots attended a union meeting in October, Sexe said. All of them were concerned about the water bills, she said.

“The goal of the tenants union is to get them to a reasonable water rate,” she said. “People move here because they want very affordable housing.

“You don't move here because you have $100, $300 a month (to spend) on a water bill.”

Rockvale residents were told on July 12 that their water billing company was going to change—from National Exemption Service to Water Works—starting in August.

The park has a well, and each home in the park has a meter and is individually billed.

Sexe provided copies of bills from 11 Rockvale lots to The Gazette, covering time before and after the park switched its billing service.

Because of the transition, the first round of bills from Water Works covered a longer period than previous bills—38 days, from Aug. 9-Sept. 16, rather than a month.

Even when taking into account the longer time frame, however, many of the bills show large increases in the amount of water residents apparently used after Rockvale switched to Water Works.

One lot went from using 1,800 gallons in the billing period covering much of July to using 7,300 through August and September.

Another used 5,000 gallons in June and 5,200 gallons in July, then got charged for 13,800 after billing switched.

The first lot went from paying about $60 each month to more than $150, while the second received a bill for $80 after typically paying just less than $30 per month.

Sexe blames Asset Development for the high bills and hopes the tenants union will protect residents from what she sees as retaliation from the landlord.

“(Residents) have no way to fight them,” Sexe said of Asset Development. “They're being taken advantage of.”

W. Dirk Hausmann, vice president and general counsel of Asset Development, declined to answer questions about the tenants union or the billing issues.

“We're not going to comment to the press at this time,” Hausmann said.

When Sexe wrote to Asset Development complaining about a big increase in water usage on her bills, she received a letter back from Hausmann saying “field personnel” visited her home and saw indications of a water leak.

Sexe provided the letter to The Gazette.

“The fact that there was a dramatic jump in usage in one month is often indicative of a leak,” Hausmann wrote.

Asked if he believed all of the residents who saw spikes in their water usage during the same billing period had sprung similar leaks at the same time, Hausmann again declined to comment.

Sexe also sent The Gazette copies of letters Asset Development sent to residents who were behind on their utility payment.

The letters inform the delinquent residents that, if they are signed up for a direct payment plan for their rent, the past-due utility charges will be taken out of their bank accounts, as well.

The letters were dated five days before Asset Development said it would take the money—sometimes hundreds of dollars—out of residents' accounts.

Asset Development has not followed through on those plans, however.

At the next union meeting in November, Sexe said, members will draft a letter complaining about the “unreasonable” water bills to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, as well as Asset Development's offices in Milwaukee and at Rockvale.

Jerad Albracht, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, declined to comment because residents had not filed a complaint with the agency.

Residents have not yet received a second round of bills from Water Works, Sexe said Friday, and they aren't sure what to expect.

“We don't know, but we're apprehensive,” she said.

Reporter Gina Duwe contributed to this story.

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