Big water bills leaving Tucsonans high and dry?
Even if no leak is tracked down, Tucson Water customers expected to pay upPhoto: Video by kgun9.com
CREATED Feb. 13, 2012
Reporter: Kevin Keen
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Imagine opening your water bill and finding you've been charged 70 times what you normally pay. That's the case of one KGUN9 News viewer whose December bill totaled more than $4,200. Her case is extreme, but she's not the only one whose blood has boiled over a bloated water bill. We've been flooded with similar complaints from customers who want to put Tucson Water in hot water. What’s a customer to do?
Raelene Kaylor says her bill in June totaled more than $1,000. That’s 15 times her normal amount and enough to fill three and a half swimming pools.
“I was shocked,” Kaylor said. “Very surprised. I figured it had to be an error.”
Another ticked-off Tucsonan: Thomas Grant. He nearly drowned opening his mailbox last fall to find a huge water bill. The September charges were $150--quadruple his norm. Tucson Water had discovered his water meter was broken, estimated how much he'd used the months before and sent him the bill.
That didn't hold water for Grant so he set out to make waves at city council. “I got news for you,” he told mayor and council during a November meeting. “You sure the hell have a problem. I was told that my water bill was nine months with a broken water meter. I don't know about you, but I can get a baby made in less than nine months!” He questioned why the agency didn’t spot the problem sooner and why he had to back-pay for the mistake.
Grant didn't think he should pay, but with the threat of having his water shut off, he drained his wallet. He said, “I just figured: Well, the city strikes again.”
Kaylor never got a reason for the suspected spike in her water use. She also took her concerns to mayor and council, but refused to pay. Tucson Water ultimately cut off her H2O.
KGUN9 reporter Kevin Keen asked her, “Is this out of principle?” “Absolutely,” she replied. “Absolutely out of principle. I have a 12-year-old son and I am trying to teach him that some things are worth standing for. This is not right.”
Confused and frustrated, Kaylor and Grant aren't the only ones who think the system's a wash. More than a dozen Tucsonans tell KGUN9 they're soaked by similar sticker shock. One woman's monthly bill: $4,200.
Keen asked Tucson Water spokesman Fernando Molina, “Do you understand the frustration?” “Oh, very much so,” he replied.
Molina said customers with big bills usually have--but don't know they have--a leak, a runny toilet or a sprinkler line break. He said the first step the department takes when an unexpectedly large bill goes out is to verify that the water meter is working properly. Sometimes, it turns out a worker misread a meter and then the charges are corrected, he said. The agency may also investigate to find a leak or the source of the problem.
If the charges stand, the department can offer customers "adjustments," allowing them to cut their bills about in half. Molina says his agency made $1 million in changes last year--generous, he says, compared to other departments in the state.
But ultimately, Molina said, “it is the responsibility of the ratepayer or the customer to take responsibility for the water that passes through that meter.”
The customer has to pay up even if the department and the homeowner can't pinpoint where the water supposedly flowed, as in Kaylor's case. She rejected the adjustment and did what customers can do to escalate their case: take it to municipal court.
“The majority of the time, Tucson Water prevails,” Molina said, which asked about how most of the cases end. “As I said, it's often very difficult for a customer to demonstrate that they did not use that water.” Keen asked, “Is that unfair? How could someone make that demonstration?” “It's a challenge,” Molina replied. “On its surface, it does appear unfair, but as I said, we know that things can happen that a customer may not be aware of that can cause their water use to rise.”
Kaylor lost her administrative hearing and was ordered to pay. Molina said his agency followed city code.
Molina adds a wave of changes may be coming to Tucson Water. He said the agency is working to better explain options to customers like Kaylor and Grant by improving customer service online and over the phone. Molina said his department may also change its policies, but couldn't give examples.
“I think perhaps a review of our current policies and practices is something that we will be looking at in the near future,” Molina said. Keen asked, “And why is that? Why in the near future?” “Well, because of the situations we've run against in the past couple of weeks,” Molina answered, referring to recent complaints. “It's having us review our policies, which we do on a regular basis.”
Tucson Water says its workers are also stepping up efforts to replace old water meters to ensure customers are billed accurately and avoid back charges. The department, however, says installing new meters every where they're needed will take at least five years. It's also looking at technology that can detect a spike in water use and alert the customer, but it says that won't come to Tucson any time soon.
The department reports it has come up with a new policy to help customers faced with big bills and a new way to calculate adjustments. The department will present the proposal to city council next week.
More than three weeks after Raelene Kaylor’s water was shut off, she reached an agreement with Tucson Water. Her $1,000 bill was pared down to $100. Kaylor paid and her water was turned back on.