Easterly view of the Scotts Valley Water District's headquarters.

A man who says he was overcharged thousands of dollars by the Scotts Valley Water District didn’t get a payout after pleading his case in front of its board, last week.

But Jim Chelossi learned his prediction had come true—several other customers now say they, too, were told by the utility to pay more than what they should have had to fork over.

“You, my friend, have opened a can of worms—not just with your property but with several other people stepping forward,” said SVWD President Ruth Stiles. “It is going to be a bigger issue than we originally thought.”

As reported in the Sept. 23 edition of the Press Banner, SVWD admitted it collected $4,381.35 more than it was supposed to from Chelossi since Feb. 2017, due to having miscategorized his property as a single-family lot.

SVWD was willing to credit Chelossi with three years worth, which works out to $2,597.84. The utility says the statute of limitations means it’s off the hook for repayments beyond that deadline. But Chelossi wants the full amount. And he even submitted a complaint to the City of Scotts Valley.

Then, on Oct. 13, he got the chance to tell the SVWD board about his predicament.

Since he survives on disability benefits, getting back the full overpayment amount would have a meaningful impact on his life, he said.

“It’s three months of my pay,” he said. “It’s a big deal to me.”

Chelossi told the board he didn’t notice the overcharge because he dutifully pays what he owes every cycle.

“I never questioned my bill, because I got a bill and I paid it,” he said. “I think I deserve the money that I paid. I’m not asking for anything extra.”

Piret Harmon, SVWD’s general manager, said since Chelossi’s case came to light, the water district’s potential liability has been mounting.

“We have received four more requests subsequently from other customers,” she said, adding she needs to do more research into what the rates were when each initially connected to the system. “We need to treat all of the customers the same.”

Some board members hinted they might’ve been willing to grant an exception for Chelossi, but said with the rising case numbers they’d need more information first.

Harmon explained that SVWD isn’t sure they did overcharge Chelossi at this point, because they discovered his 5/8th water meter is smaller than the “master meters” generally used for multi-family properties.

Vice President Chris Perri said he wants to get a sense of how all the units on Chelossi’s property ended up on the smaller meter.

Perri said he is open to helping Chelossi get the full amount of the overpayment back.

“The whole reason there’s a board of directors is they have the ability to make an exception,” he said.

Director Bill Ekwwall said just because the water district might not legally have to pay Chellosi the full overcharge doesn’t mean that’s the right move. But, he added,  “I’m not willing to make that decision tonight.”

Director Danny Reber said whatever they decide to do for Chelossi will set a precedent for the others coming forward.

“That’s why it’s important,” he said. “We want to make sure we do it right.”

Director Wade Leishman said SVWD tries its best not to make billing errors and says it must fix them when it learns it’s screwed up.

“We don’t want to make mistakes,” Leishman said. “I want to thank you very much for coming here and presenting your case.”

Because Chelossi lives in unincorporated Santa Cruz County, the district will have to work in partnership with County staff to dig up details about his property.

And Harmon said SVWD will be combing through its own records to see just how widespread the problem with overbilling has been.

While SVWD won’t be able to check every single single-family parcel in town for excessive charges, she says they will look to see if there are any concerning patterns that jump out.

The board decided to table Chelossi’s matter for a future meeting.

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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