The outside investigation is done, but there is still a lot of work to do by all parties in the Shipyard Brewery sewer bill error.
The good news is that despite some very sloppy record-keeping and communication, there is no evidence of intentional wrongdoing.
According to attorney Brian Dench, it appears to have been a case of errors compounding over time that led to the brewery and bottling plant never receiving a bill for an estimated $1.5 million of sewer fees over a 15-year period. The brewery has been paying its full bill for about a year since the problem was identified.
But when it comes to rebuilding public confidence, the city has not finished the job.
Other sewer users were accurately billed during the entire period in question, including other competing breweries, and the city will have to prove to them that it has done all it can to make sure that the underlying problem has been fixed. They can’t just look to the future; promising to never do it again is not enough.
And it’s not enough for Shipyard, either. To listen to company co-owner Fred Forsley, you would think his company had been the victim of the error instead of its beneficiary.
Shipyard should not get a bill for the whole past-due account all at once, but he should work out an agreement with the city to make this right. This is not about punishing Shipyard – there is no evidence that the company did anything wrong – but rather treating other customers fairly.
The unpaid account built up gradually over time, and that’s the way that the company should be asked to settle the bill. That shouldn’t come as such a shock that it forces the brewery to shut down or move its jobs elsewhere. But it should be done to keep faith with the other customers who paid their whole bills all along.
Since it can’t really be known why the error was made in the first place, the city will have a hard time rebuilding its credibility on this issue.
This will come up every time the sewer rates increase in the years to come, and the processes designed to prevent some customers from getting favorable treatment should be firmly in place and easy to understand if the public is going accept it.