Ask city residents to jump through too many hoops and they're gone

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Rebecca Hirsh next to her dreaded water meter.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Rebecca Hirsh next to her dreaded water meter.
Posted: September 27, 2013

BUREAUCRACY is all about jumping through hoops.

You go to renew your driver's license and, lo and behold, you're standing in the wrong line with the wrong paperwork in front of the wrong grumpy employee. Have a nice day!

You call the electric company and . . . press 2 for customer service, and then press 3, and then press, wait, what? Oh, forget it.

You go to the Parking Authority and, well, just don't go.

We tolerate a certain number of hoops as the price we pay to live in a city. But when a city department keeps moving the hoop - Yoo-hoo, citizen chump, up here. Psyyych . . . Yoo-hoo, citizen mope, down here - even the most easygoing among us is bound to get fed up.

That's where Rebecca Hirsh is with the Philadelphia Water Department. Since buying her home in 2011, Hirsh says she's been on the losing end of the department's whims.

Under new regulations for new townhomes, Hirsh's house on the 700 block of South Bancroft Street needed fire sprinklers and a backflow-prevention device to prevent water contamination.

Because of the mandatory fire-sprinkler system, PWD said her home also needed a larger meter. That didn't make a lot of sense to Hirsh. But who is she to argue, right? She's a doctor, not a plumber.

Except the hassle didn't end there. Turns out PWD couldn't install the large meter (were they out of them?) so they estimated her bills. The bills turned out to be lot more than they should have been considering her energy-efficient home.

PWD eventually gave her a credit, although not as much as she thinks she's due, and not before mistakenly turning her water off while she appealed the charges. That was an especially uncomfortable 24 hours for her and her 7-year-old son. Oh, and after all that, they decided she didn't need the larger meter after all.

So you can see how the department was already tap dancing on Hirsh's last nerve when she and her neighbors got a letter from PWD this past summer - maybe June or July, it's unclear because many of the letters she's received from PWD are undated.

Hirsh and other customers with residential fire sprinkler systems had two choices, the letter said. They could hire a registered fire-suppression contractor to modify the backflow device or keep it and have it inspected every year - at $200 a pop. They had until Sept. 1 to make their choice. They have until the end of the year to get the plumbing modification done. Do nothing and she and the estimated 439 customers in the same boat could be risking having their water turned off.

Jump, citizen, jump.

"In two years no one ever mentioned further testing or another option to what they said was a mandatory backflow-prevention assembly," Hirsh said. "It's just outrageous that they insisted that this backflow-prevention assembly was necessary and are now suggesting that I hire their approved contractor to replace it."

Sounds like a totally legit gripe, so I reached out to Laura Copeland, spokeswoman for PWD. She sent me a handy fact sheet. Except the fact sheet didn't answer any of the resident's valid questions about why they weren't made aware of the less-expensive modification earlier, and why such a tight deadline and how many more times PWD's going to reach into their pockets.

Copeland said the state changed the building code in 2010, which in turn meant a change in regulation for them. Between the regulation change in early 2010 and the modification in December 2010, builders were installing the mandatory backflow assembly, as instructed. Hirsh's builder said he was never told there would be yearly maintenance fees.

At first, Copeland suggested it was on the builders to tell city residents of the regulations and upkeep. But she quickly thought better of that and admitted that she could understand why Hirsh and her neighbors were frustrated.

"I certainly empathize with the customers and we will do whatever we can to work with them and educate them on these changes," she said. She suggested anyone with questions call 215-685-1419.

That's refreshing. But considering the moving hoop and the misinformation and lack of communication, I asked if the department would consider extending that deadline or, better yet, assisting the residents with the added cost. She said that wasn't on the table.

It should be. These hoops, they are part of city living. But put up too many and move them too often and people stop jumping. They bolt.

"It makes me want to run out of the city and go live in the suburbs where I won't have to pay city wage tax and deal with all this nonsense," Hirsh said.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas

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