Fred Forsley, president of Shipyard Brewing Co. — which was erroneously not billed for sewer on a 6-inch water line from 1996 until 2011 — stepped forward to defend the integrity of his company and employees Monday night before the Portland City Council.
Monday was the night on which attorney Bryan Dench provided the council a run-down of his investigation into the billing error, which Portland Press Herald reporter Tom Bell painstakingly calculated out to be worth something around $1.5 million over that decade and a half stretch.
On Friday, the city announced the results of Dench’s roughly six-week review, which found a number of peculiarities, but couldn’t definitively attribute the billing mistake to anything other than a big misunderstanding. (More on that in a little bit.)
Throughout the attorney’s investigation, and in the aftermath of the report’s release, there have been calls for the city to try and recoup the money it lost, even a comment at tonight’s council meeting by a member of the public who was confident Shipyard knew about the error all along.
But Fred Forsley took the lectern as well, and defended Shipyard’s place in all of this mess. The monthly sewer bills at the Newbury Street brewing company have gone from $15,000 to $55,000, he said, and the hike has put in stark relief the difference in rates in Portland compared to those being paid by some of his nationwide competitors.
Forsley pointed out that Maine’s largest city charges $8.11 per cubic yard of discharge into the sewer system, while The Brooklyn Brewery (in New York) and Magic Hat Brewing Co. (in South Burlington, Vt.) pay around $5.
Forsley became emotional during his address of the council, and suggested the rate at which he’s now getting charged for sewer is unsustainable. He made the point that the sewer charges would have been passed along to customers incrementally over time, and it would be unfair to now lump accumulated back bills onto the company:
I’ve spent a great deal of time looking back, and when people question your integrity and other things, it’s very personal. When you employ 90 people in Portland, they depend on you. This is not something I take lightly. …
My biggest issue is how I’m going to make payroll next month and next year and still be a leader in the industry. I can’t afford to go back and [absorb] a bill of whatever number people are going to pull out of the sky. I can’t go back and bill people for beer I sold people two years ago or 10 years ago.
City officials haven’t yet arrived at a decision on how, or whether, to try to collect past payments. The City Council went into and came out of executive session, and did not take a public vote afterward.
During Dench’s presentation in the public portion of the meeting, he described a frustrating process in which he came up against a surprising and uncharacteristic lack of documentation.
The problem was that when Shipyard expanded in 1996, they installed a new 6-inch water line, and the work order had a three-word note saying “bill sewer no.” That set the stage for 15 years in which the Portland Water District went ahead and “bill sewer no.”
“There’s no other document from 1996 or 1997 that would help us understand why that was done,” Dench told the council.
The city official primarily responsible for keeping track of those things, David Peterson, who was described as a thorough and honest individual, died in 2008 and cannot tell us what happened with Shipyard, Dench said.
The attorney also said signs indicate Shipyard was unaware of the mistake, as they added a submeter to the line in question two years later, something company officials wouldn’t have bothered with unless they believed they were being charged sewer rates for the line and would benefit from tallying how much water they were diverting from the sewer system.
“The long and the short of it is no one can tell with absolute certainty why the water district set it up not to be billed for sewer,” Dench told the council.