By Lauren Victory

HAWTHORN WOODS, Ill. (CBS) — Homeowners in a new development contacted the CBS 2 Morning Insiders after they assumed their monthly costs included sewer charges – and they did not.

Recently, the Village of Hawthorn Woods hit them with a bill in the thousands of dollars – a backlog the village blames on an accounting mistake. As CBS 2’s Lauren Victory reported Friday morning, that error is worrisome for the future.

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“Hawthorn Woods seemed like it was a new town,” said homeowner Darshan Desai.

And life seemed like it was simpler in Lake County.

“We saw this community and the houses were beautiful,” Desai said.

The Desais eagerly moved into their shiny new home in September 2018. Only recently, they discovered their money going down the drain.

Desai said he remembers experiencing “a lot of confusion” as a whopping $699.36 sewer charge stared back at him. The Village of Hawthorn Woods included an apology letter, explaining that a “recent audit” had found that “usage was never billed.”

But was there another mistake?

“We didn’t even know we had a sewer bill,” Desai said.

The Desais and others in the development assumed their Aqua water bills already included sewer charges.

“We didn’t know where this was coming from,” Desai said. “The builder nor Hawthorn Woods never mentioned this – that there was a separate sewer bill – when you first moved into the community.”

“It’s kind of like having the rug pulled out from under you,” added Kyle Essary.

Essary’s sewer bill of $2,165 is huge because he has lived in Hawthorn Woods longer and has a family of four. Now, the Essarys are figuring out how to pay that lump sum – along with the unexpected $195 sewer bill that never used to come.

“My kids are young, and we said we wanted our forever home, and you plan on something like that – and then you find out a year and a half after the fact that you’ve been living there that it is, in fact, much more expensive than you originally anticipated,” Essary said. “I mean, it’s a big shock.”

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Also surprising is that the Hawthorn Woods move-in checklist the homeowners received never mentioned that Lake Zurich provides sewer service for some parts of town. People like Essary and Desai pay a sewer rate of $17.80 per 1,000 gallons, while for only 28 cents more, Lake Zurich residents get both sewer and water.

CBS 2 also found that Lake Zurich’s higher rate for outsiders is one of the highest in the area. Compare it to Palatine’s $3.64 and Cary’s $6.23.

“We lived in Glenview, we lived in Vernon Hills before this, and we didn’t have a rate anything close to this,” Essary said.

They worry the cost of flushing will spiral – and because they are not Lake Zurich residents, they may not have any say in it.

Lake Zurich officials defended their sewer rates in emails provided to CBS 2 by neighbors.

Meanwhile, Hawthorn Woods Village Chief Operating Officer Pam Newton also provided some explanations. She said the billing delay that the Desais and the Essarys experienced was a result of multiple factors – and only affected 16 homes within the same subdivision.

“The billing delay was a result of several factors, including setting up the accounting process of water usage from Aqua Illinois. There was also a disconnect between the occupancy permit of the new construction and the finance department entering that new construction into the new billing system,” Newton wrote. “The Village gave residents 180 days to catch up on their payments, and offered a payment plan without interest or late fees for those who needed extra time to pay for their service.”

As to the contract with Lake Zurich, Newton said Hawthorn Woods does not have any control over Lake Zurich’s choices to set rate increases, and does not have any provision in its contract with Lake Zurich to cap the rate or rate increase. Newton wrote that the for the residents who have sewer service through Lake Zurich, the alternative would be no sewer service at all.

“The contract was enacted 16 years ago to establish a sewer route through Lake Zurich’s system to the treatment plant in Buffalo Grove. The agreement does not discuss pricing. Rather, it provided a modern amenity for our residents to have sewer service. Without sewer availability, the Stonebridge homes would need to be built on larger lots to provide for their own individually owned septic system that distributes to the rear yard after treatment,” Newton wrote. “Residents that aren’t on public sewer have conventional septic systems. These systems include a holding tank and a septic field located on their private yards. Maintenance of the system is the responsibility of the homeowner.”

The agreement between Hawthorn Woods and Lake Zurich allows for Lake Zurich “to establish sewer rates and amend them from time to time,” Newton wrote. Further, Newton wrote that any sewer rate increases that Lake Zurich enacts are the same for every user outside of Lake Zurich who uses it system – not just those in Hawthorn Woods.

As to Lake Zurich not being mentioned in the Hawthorn Woods welcome packet, Newton wrote that the purpose of the welcome packet is intended as “a courtesy to residents to assist them in becoming familiar with many of our municipal services and vendors,” not as a “comprehensive list.” She noted that there are multiple sewer service providers in Hawthorn Woods and the said welcome packet does not “list every possible combination or sewer contractor.”

Newton also wrote that Hawthorn Woods will be conducting a new survey to determine its portion of the sewer bill, which should be completed by November. She said Lake County recently performed a similar analysis for its water and sewer rates.

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“Beginning on December 1, 2019, the Lake County portion of the bill for all of our residents connecting to the Buffalo Grove treatment plant will realize a 4% increase as a result of the cost analysis,” Newton wrote.

Lauren Victory