By Lunch & Maddux
Inyo County has filed a complaint against Wilder Barton Inc., an independent contractor which managed the County’s water systems at Independence, Lone Pine and Laws from mid-2014 through 2018.
The complaint, filed June 26 in Inyo County Superior Court, alleges that Wilder Barton shirked contractual obligations.
Wilder Barton is owned and operated by Patricia Wilder-Barton (who also serves as Inyo County’s Public Guardian), Floyd “Justin” Barton and Kenneth Wilder.
From the complaint’s introductory summary:
“Wilder Barton’s obligations under its contract with the county were simple: Wilder Barton was to read the water meters of County water system customers in Lone Pine, Independence and Laws near the end of each billing cycle (ed. note. The contract called for bi-monthly meter readings), record those meter readings in log books, bill customers based on those meter readings, and remit the money collected from customers to the County. Wilder Barton did not complete those tasks. For whatever reason, Wilder Barton neglected to go house-to-house to read water meters and instead substituted invented ‘guesstimates’ of customers’ water usage in place of actual meter readings. Consequently, customers received bills that bore no resemblance to actual water usage.
In the vast majority of cases, Wilder Barton’s practice of guesstimating customer water usage resulted in the customer being under-billed each billing cycle. While the amount of under-billing for each bill was generally small, Wilder Barton shirked its obligations under the contract and substituted guesstimates in place of actual meter reads for hundreds of County residents over the span of at least three years. When aggregated, these thousands of small errors add up to well in excess of $100,000 in lost revenue for the County.”
During the four-and-a-half years of the contract (which included two extensions to the original three-year deal), Wilder Barton amassed $924,300 in billings.
The complaint asserts that reading meters and billing customers represented Wilder Barton’s “core obligations” under the contract.
The Sheet reached Patricia Wilder-Barton on Wednesday. “I wasn’t aware of meters not being read,” she said. She added that her company performed on all other elements in the contract.
In a phone interview, Inyo County Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Clint Quilter said the meter reading discrepancies were first identified by County Public Works employees once the contract with Wilder Barton was not extended past December, 2018.
And while Quilter insisted that the County had done a lot of community outreach during the changeover to a new flat rate system (which will feature a 100% rate increase implemented over five years) administered by the County, customers The Sheet’s Melissa Maddux spoke with had little knowledge of the lawsuit – even those whose addresses were listed as examples in the complaint.
One such resident is Gordon Baldwin, a retiree who has lived at 610 South Edwards St. in Independence for more than a decade. “During the time they did the water meters, it sometimes took a long time to get a check-cashed,” said Baldwin about the water meter reading company, Wilder-Barton.
The Baldwin residence prepaid its water bill by check, but Baldwin said he did not notice a difference in the bill. At the same time, Baldwin said “we never experienced a service interruption during that time. The water continued to flow,” he said.
The complaint suggests Baldwin’s water usage is one million gallons higher than what was guesstimated by Wilder Barton.
He has not been billed for the difference. No one’s told him anything.
But here’s the rub, according to Attorney Rick Wood, who is representing Wilder Barton.
There are really two separate issues.
Yes, there’s the issue of meter readings, but that represent a simple breach of contract action between the county and the contractor.
But the remedy for inaccurate meter readings isn’t complicated. Get a proper reading and send “true-up” bills to your customers.
But then, said Wood, you’d have to admit your own mismanagement and lack of oversight in the matter. Never mind irritating the hell out of your constituents by handing them large bills they’re not expecting and may have difficulty paying.
But back to Ms. Maddux’s search for truth amongst the local populace.
While searching for 310 N. Jackson St. in Lone Pine, The Sheet spoke with a tow truck driver for American Towing, Oracio Nava, 24, who is a resident of 312 N. Jackson St.—he and his family live in a small house that is owned by Lone Pine Communications.
Before moving to his current residence in September, 2019, Oracio and his family lived at 123 Willow St., where he was told by the landlord to set up his own water service.
Nava said he paid his water bill every two months, but then noticed that his bill increased and then … he eventually stopped seeing a bill—he said there was no shut-off notice, or a late fee.
He informed the County, but they asked him if he had the right address for the company, said Nava. Then later, he received a bill from Inyo County in the amount of $800, and he wondered why Wilder-Barton had stopped sending bills—all the money owed to Wilder-Barton was taken over by the County, said Nava.
Liz Martinez, 37, who works at Lone Pine Communications, told The Sheet Branson Trust rented the space next door to Wilder-Barton for five years, and then the company moved near the Joseph’s Market location—she was not working at Lone Pine Communications during this time.
Martinez said Wilder-Barton “would walk the street and check the meters and open up all the meters … As years progressed, I didn’t see them very often [and] towards the end, they didn’t check the meters at all,” she recalled.
When Martinez received a bill for her residence, she did not notice an increase or decrease in her bill, as it seemed the same—she believes they took an average and that is what she paid, said Martinez.
According to Martinez, 310 N. Jackson St. is rented out to Health and Human Services.
Wood’s office filed a Notice of Demurrer on August 29.
He believes the County’s complaint is a “classic case of government overreach.”
He was also critical of the county presenting its complaint as it did, seeking a win in the court of public opinion via a sensational complaint to shield itself from criticism.
“The County, in its infinite wisdom, has chosen not to enter into settlement discussions,” he said.
As for the rate increase which coincidentally comes on the heels of the County’s discovery of comprehensive under-billings, Quilter, in defense of the rate hike, says there had not been a rate increase in approximately two decades. “It was the least contentious rate increase I’ve ever been through,” he adds,with just nine protest letters submitted by the more than 800 customers.