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2 Investigators: Late Fees On Water Bill Could Force Family From Home

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POPLAR GROVE, Ill. (CBS) – Thousands of dollars in fees on a water bill may force a family to become homeless. The desperate parents say their village is charging excessive fees, more than many other municipalities. CBS 2′s Dave Savini has been looking into their plight and has this original report.

The Berryhill Shafala family, of Poplar Grove, has 11 children, including five foster children adopted so they can have a better life. Last year, the family suffered some hard times. Josh Berryhill says he became disabled, could not work and fell behind on his water bill.

The Village of Poplar Grove is planning to shut off their water next week if they do not pay the more than $5,000 bill. Half of that bill, about $2500, is for late fees.

“I was hoping they would have compassion,” said Berryhill.

The family has more than $100,000 in medical bills for his surgeries and for open-heart surgery and therapies to treat his four-year-old daughter Eleesia who has Down’s syndrome.

“The medical bills are just phenomenal,” said Berryhill.

He and his wife paid about one-thousand dollars towards their water bill and say they pleaded with Village officials to work out a payment plan for the rest. But that did not happen and every two months, the village tacks on a late fee of 10 percent.

“You know all you can do is try,” said an emotional Berryhill.

Mark Lynch, the village administrator, confirms the family offered to make extra payments of $100 a month, but Lynch says that is not enough and the late fees will continue.

Lynch says he can empathize with the family’s situation. “Sure I can empathize with that; I don’t think that ceases a person’s responsibility to pay their bills,” said Lynch.

Jim Chilsen with the Citizens Utility Board (CUB), a watchdog group, says while municipal water is not considered a utility, hardship cases must be considered as it is in some other communities.

“These people have gone through a lot over the last few years,” said Chilsen. “They’re dealing with a lot and they want to do the right thing, they want to pay their water bill, and it would be nice if the utility could help them do that by setting up a better payment program.”

Chilsen says city’s like Chicago and Joliet only charge residents a little more than one percent for late fees, not 10 percent like in this case. The Berryhill Shafala family says Poplar Grove’s fees are excessive.

“I’m sure people would say that, but I’ve lived in places where the fees are much higher,” said Lynch.

“I never thought we’d be in this situation,” said Berryhill who worries the water will be shut off and the family will be homeless.

Next Monday, Berryhill will go before the Village Board to try and get an affordable payment plan. If the Board votes no, the family’s water will be turned off and they will likely be evicted.

There is some state regulation over late fees, but that only covers private water suppliers not municipalities. Private suppliers are only allowed to issue late fees of one-and-a-half percent.