TOWN OF EVANS - A surprise came in the mail for Paul Pinto this month.
"You're on the phone with your plumber, calling your neighbors, calling your friends," Pinto said. "Trying to figure out, is there a problem here?"
His water bill doubled.
"My first reaction is, I have a water leak. Or I have a problem with my home," Pinto said.
Pinto paid $187 in water utilities last week for his latest two-month cycle. He said he normally pays about $70. Felicia Kron, a 21-year-old who lives with his sisters, paid $265 dollars, close to triple her average bill.
"Kind of ridiculous, actually," Kron said.
Rate have increased all over the Town of Evans, but it's not because the people are taking more showers, flushing more toilets or discovering new water leaks.
It's because the government needs the money to fix its own mistakes.
"That is fair," Town Supervisor Keith Dash said. "But you have to look at the big picture."
Before delving into that "big picture," it is first important to understand why the rate increases have occured. The Town of Evans dissolved its Water Department and no longer collects the bills, so starting this month, the Erie County Water Authority has taken control of this process. Residents pay ECWA now for their utilities-- not the town government. The ECWA's minimum usage rate is 9,000 gallons, as opposed to the town's former minimum of 6,000.
So everybody now pays for 9,000 gallons, even if they use significantly fewer gallons during the course of a cycle.
"Unfortunately, the people who don't use the minimum, they're the ones that probably feel them the most," Dash said.
And they're still paying the same surcharge they've always paid to the Town of Evans. The ECWA's water rate is $2.96 per 1,000 gallons, and the surcharge rate is $2.89 per 1,000 gallons.
That surcharge used to go to the Water Department to pay the water expenses. Except now it's going to a different fund-- to pay off the town's debt, which it created by its own mismanagement.
Dash called the ECWA takeover a "necessity." That's because the Town of Evans finds itself in a bind. Due to mismanagement of its water fund, outlined extensively in a scathing audit released in 2012, it must now repay $16.2 million dollars in debt. According to the auditors, "The Board and Town Officials did not sufficiently budget and properly account for water fund operations, and allowed that fund to incur long-standing operating deficits without taking appropriate action." The financial mismanagement predates Dash, who took office in 2012. However, he was a council member during the previous administration, and the issues date back more than a decade and span multiple town supervisors.
"The audit is correct," Dash said. "And when I took office, I realized there was a debt... When it was time to pay the bill when we took office, there was no money to pay the bill."
Dash blames previous administrations for the debt, but the bottom line is this: the audit claims the town did not manage its water fund properly, and now there's only one way to fix the problem.
Get rid of the Water Department, make people pay the ECWA for their utilities and then make them pay a surcharge to finance the long-term debt.
"[It's] terribly uncomfortable. This debt I've been hearing some information about," Pinto said, "is now impacting me as a resident."
According to an official with the ECWA, the Town of Evans is the eighth place since 1999 to allow a takeover. Depew, Clarence, Lancaster, Concord, parts of Orchard Park, Hamburg and Blasdell preceded Evans. The ECWA also said it is close to a deal with the Village of Williamsville.
Dash said a $625,000 grant will pay some of the $16.2 million. The rest of the revenue will come entirely from the surcharge over the next 30 years.
That means the Town of Evans better get used to paying more for water.
"I'm already living paycheck-to-paycheck," Kron said. "Walk a mile in my shoes and I guarantee the first step, you're gonna trip."