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Attleboro, Mass. threatens blind woman over 1-cent water bill

Eileen Wilbur, a 74 year-old blind woman living by herself, recently got a nasty shock when her daughter was helping her go through her mail. Apparently, Ms. Wilbur had failed to pay part of a water bill from the preceding year, and the city was now threatening her with a lien against her home. The bill, which Attleboro officials noted was among 2,000 that went out, was for one cent.

The letter went on to inform Ms. Wilbur that, unless she paid by December 10, she could face a $48 penalty, in addition to court proceedings. As her daughter, Rose Brederson, noted, Ms. Wilbur has lived in the house for almost 50 years and would most certainly pay the penny. However, given that the bill cost 42 cents to mail, one wonders how the City of Attleboro hopes to make its money back. What's more, while Ms. Wilbur is undoubtedly an outlier, it's reasonable to ask how many of the 2,000 bills, which cost $840 to mail, were worth less than the price of postage.

When confronted with this situation, City Collector Debra Marcoccio responded by pointing out that Attleboro's billing is completely automated, and is not audited by human beings. She went on to defensively ask why Ms. Wilbur didn't pay the one cent the year before, when it was first due. Like anyone else who's ever been through this sort of mess, I have a pretty good idea about what happened: the 1¢ bill is either unannounced interest on the water bill, or represents fractions of pennies that have accrued on Ms. Wilbur's account, which the billing software decided to add to her latest bill. Regardless, this is the sort of thing that any human being (or even a bureaucrat) with a fully-functioning cerebral cortex could probably have handled with a minimum of fuss.

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Like almost everybody, I've had a few problems with automatic billing. My personal bete noir was Virginia Tech. When I was in college, I would occasionally find my account blocked because of library fines, accrued pennies, or some other incredibly minor issue. Given that my access to the dining halls, the library, my grades, and all university services depended on having my account open, these little issues often became big problems rather quickly. The final time this happened, however, I was living off campus, preparing my own meals, and generally out of the reach of the big, bad campus cash cow. Consequently, I decided to have a little fun.

First off, I sent a check to the University. I apparently owed them $6.93, but I paid them a full $7. I then proceeded to mail them increasingly nasty letters demanding repayment of my 7¢. I threatened to block their account, take them to court, and report them to various credit agencies. I was enjoying myself until the University ruined the fun by sending me a check for $7. I thought about cashing it, owing them $6.93 again, and restarting the whole mess, but decided against it. I think I still have the check lying around somewhere. One of these days, I'm going to frame it.

In the end, this was probably incredibly petty and more than a little ridiculous. It cost me five or six stamps, not to mention the time I took to craft the letters, tear-off slips, and payment envelopes. However, this was one of those situations in which the money was secondary to the thrill of revenge. For a few cents and an hour at the computer, I experienced the unbridled joy of harassing the harassers. I still remember it with a smile.

If Ms. Wilbur is so inclined, I could easily suggest a way to work out some frustration. All she needs to do is send the City of Attleboro a check for 8 cents...

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. "Petty Smartass" is his middle name. Actually, it's "Wallace," but he wishes that it was "Petty Smartass"...

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