7 Investigates: Homeowners say they’re flushing money, paying ‘outrageous’ monthly utility bills

LEICESTER, MASS. (WHDH) -
$965.00.
$524.00.
$663.00.
$789.00.
These are just some of the bills people in Cherry Valley are paying for water and sewer every month.
“The bills are just insane,” says Tracy Gallati.
The bills are so high, residents have started protesting, holding what they call “stand-outs” on the streets of Cherry Valley.
Cherry Valley is a small community of about 440 homes.
It is part of Leicester. But its water and sewer runs through Worcester pipes. That means, on top of paying for their water usage, Cherry Valley homeowners are being charged local fees, and Worcester fees.
MAKING SACRIFICES 
“Water here is a luxury and flushing your toilet is a millionaire’s dream,” says Margaret Darling.
Margaret and Leonard Darling are taking desperate measures to cut their bill.
“On the other side of the house, we got buckets lined up to catch all of the rain water. That’s how we do our gardening. We have a big bucket that we put in the shower when we are taking a shower to catch excess water. We will move that to the kitchen and help use that for pre-washing dishes,” says Leonard Darling.
The Darlings have made sacrifices to save money.
“I now go to the laundromat because there’s no way we could afford to wash the laundry in our own home,” says Margaret. “It’s not living like real people.”
Tracy Gallati’s family of five is doing all they can to lower their bill.
“My two oldest haven’t been home a lot, they shower at their friends’ houses just to help,” says Gallati. “Then you cannot afford to take a shower or flush a toilet, that makes your home inhabitable. That should never happen.”
Gallati says she’s not even flushing her toilet every time.
But Gallati’s average bill is still more than $600 a month.
INCREASED RATES 
“People can’t afford these bills,” says Gallati.
Since 2016, the rates in Cherry Valley jumped an average of 40% each year.
In 2016, Commissioners voted to increase the rates by 25%. 
In 2017, rates increased 64%- 84% (depending on the amount of water homeowners used).

In 2019, the rates again increased 32%-40% and in 2020, the rates increased another 45%-70%.

“We do sympathize with them and we are trying,” says Benjamin Morris.

Morris is Cherry Valley’s water and sewer superintendent, and has been since 2017.
He says it’s not just the double whammy of fees that’s making bills high.
Morris says Cherry Valley’s water and sewer rates are being raised because the community is in debt.
IN DEBT 
 
The Cherry Valley sewer district owes the US Department of Agriculture more than two million dollars. That money was borrowed back in 2002 to fund the sewer system.
Those loans are scheduled to be paid off in the next 13 years, but Morris says the sewer district has been operating in the red since 2002.
“They were almost running in the deficit since the beginning of the system being put online,” says Morris.
To help pay off that loan, Cherry Valley residents were assessed $12,000 per home a few years ago.
But Morris says that money was actually used for operational costs like salaries and equipment, because of the deficit in the budget.
“It was just being put into one account and being spent as the bills came in,” says Morris.
Morris says he doesn’t believe the district mismanaged the money, but believes if commissioners had gradually raised rates over the years, this might not be happening.
“If we went back 15 years or so and started doing incremental rate increases to cover the increases to the operational costs, we may have been in a different situation,” says Morris.
That explanation is frustrating for Tracy Gallati and other Cherry Valley homeowners who are now begging for help.
“We made all those sacrifices and in spite of all that, they are out of control,” says Tracy.
People who live in Cherry Valley have started a petition asking the Attorney General and Governor to get involved.
State lawmaker: “The federal government can, and should help.”
 “If I was burdened with a utility bill that’s as big as a car payment, I would be outraged also,” says Massachusetts State Representative David LeBoeuf, who represents Cherry Valley.

Le Boeuf says the federal government could help by refinancing the USDA loan to a much lower rate. It’s says the USDA keeps telling Cherry Valley, it’s a policy not to do so.

If the secretary or the Trump administration wanted to refinance loans they could. They are choosing not to,” says Representative LeBoeuf. “I’m not going to let this go. I don’t care how long this takes, I’m not letting this go.”

The Cherry Valley sewer district says you can call them to have a discussion about long term payment plans.

Cherry Valley recently got federal money for a study that will look at whether combining Cherry Valley’s sewer and water district with other utility district in the area, will help save money.

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