'No drips, no runs, no errors': Fighting your big water bill in court
Photo: Video by kgun9.com
CREATED Feb. 13, 2013
Reporter: Kevin Keen
AVRA VALLEY, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - If you were certain your water bill this month was too high, how far would you go to fight it? Would you call the water company and wait on hold for hours? Or, would you take your case all the way to court?
9 On Your Side tagged along as a Tucson Water customer fought his big bill in front of a judge. 9 On Your Side also discovered the odds of winning a case and who pays the judge to be there.
The story starts with Dale Babel, who argued there is no way 31,000 gallons of water ran through his hoses, faucets and pipes in one month.
“I verified no leaks under the ground,” the Avra Valley man said. “My fixtures are all pretty new. No drips, no runs, no errors.”
Babel’s Tucson Water bill from May shows otherwise. April was normal: $20. May, he said, was a super soaker in comparison: $242, which is 12 times the last one and part of a two-month spike.
Babel double-checked his meter and Tucson Water did, too. No one ever found a reason for the spike, such as a leak.
Still, the department told him to pay up. Babel's response: not without a fight.
“I know I’m right,” he said. “I know that water didn't come onto my property.”
Babel pursued a lesser-known option for customers: taking your big bill to city court.
9 On Your Side reporter Kevin Keen asked Babel, “A lot of people would've dropped it. They just would've paid the bill. Why did you?”
“Because I have time,” Babel answered. “I'm retired now.”
The process is called an "administrative hearing." Babel and Tucson Water each made their case in front of a judge, showing bills, water use history and meter test results.
“We make our case by, number one, establishing what our policies are,” explained Tucson Water spokesman Fernando Molina. “We also establish what our procedures are and whether or not these procedures are followed in terms of reading the meter and going back and re-reading the meter.”
In the courtroom downtown, Judge Pro Tem Judy Drickey-Prohow told Babel he needed to show how his bill was "unfair, unjust or wrong."
In other words, the burden of proof was on him. The water meter was innocent unless proved guilty.
Ultimately, neither Babel nor Tucson Water could explain why Babel's bill was so big.
After the hearing, Babel was hopeful.
“I think it went pretty well,” he said. “I think that the judge listened.”
9 On Your Side wanted to know how many of these cases judges listen to and what they decide.
Tucson Water reported there were 41 total hearings last fiscal year. Of those, seven customers won their case and 34 lost. That's a success rate of 17 percent.
“The cards are stacked against anybody that has an administrative hearing,” Babel said.
Keen asked him, “So why did you do it anyway?”
“Because I needed to go completely through the process,” he answered.
City and court records also show Tucson Water itself pays for a judge to run the hearings.
Presiding Judge Tony Riojas told 9 On Your Side Tucson Water pays $125 for four hours of a judge's time. The department pays city court, which cuts the judge a check.
“We get a judge for them, and we pass on the cost of the judge to them,” Riojas said, “so it's someone who's not affiliated in any with Tucson Water making the decision.”
Keen asked Riojas, “Is there a possible conflict of interest there?”
“Not really,” he answered. “If you think about it, the City of Tucson Police Department gives you a citation. They're a city of Tucson employee.”
Riojas also pointed out the judge is paid regardless of their decision and all judges swear to be ethical, reviewing evidence fairly and impartially.
Is this system of one side paying for a judge normal? Actually, yes.
Keen called around and found that a state agency in charge of administrative hearings also does it this way on occasion.
Records show other Tucson city departments – including housing and environmental services -- also pay judges to run their hearings.
Babel waited four weeks for the judge's decision after his hearing. He lost. Judge Drickey-Prohow found he needed pay up and he did.
Drickey-Prohow cited, in part, this section (number 27-29) of Tucson city code: "The customer of record, as indicated in the utility’s records, is responsible for paying all charges for the provision of water service to a property or premises, regardless of whether the customer of record or another party has actually used the water delivered the property.”
Babel disputed the judge’s reasoning stated in her two-page decision, arguing she cherry picked details of his past water usage and ignored key points. He wanted to appeal, although there is no such established process in place.
Keen asked Babel, “What would you tell the next Tucson Water customer who gets a high bill? Should they fight it?”
“I believe they should,” he chuckled, adding only if the person has the time and motivation.
Babel now watches his meter like a hawk and even installed his own meter to double check the accuracy of Tucson Water's.
There's another thing Tucson Water customers should know before taking a big bill to court. When someone requests an administrative hearing, they give up any "courtesy adjustment" the department may have offered to help lower their bill. Tucson Water said that's only fair because the hearings require staff to do extra work.
Babel plans to continue fighting Tucson Water on this issue before city council and the county board of supervisors.