Best of Sunday: Outsized water bills hit local users hard

They can't find any evident reason for huge charges but are left to pay
2012-03-04T00:02:00Z 2014-07-15T17:33:19Z Best of Sunday: Outsized water bills hit local users hardRhonda Bodfield Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 04, 2012 12:02 am  • 

Last March, Joseph Kane opened his water bill to see that he owed Tucson Water $3,364 and some cents.

He had used, the water department said, some 222,904 gallons of water.

His normal usage is somewhere around 8,000 gallons.

The 73-year-old Kane, who is retired, lives in a Foothills home with his wife. There's no swimming pool. No vast spread of landscaping.

With no puddles or big sopping sinkholes, Kane called the water department.

He was told they'd knock it down by about 50 percent. But he'd have to pay or have his water shut off.

He paid almost $1,620.

Kane then paid $325 to have a leak detection company come out to inspect his property. A comprehensive detection work-up was done. No leaks were found.

Mysteriously, with no intervention on his part, his next water bill righted itself. It came in at $104. It's been $68 a month for the last 10 months.

Kane was wholly dissatisfied with the utility's response, saying no one seems particularly concerned about the customers. "This appears to be the same old story of trying to fight City Hall," Kane said.

Every year, about 4,500 customers complain to Tucson Water about abnormally big bills.

For its part, the utility notes that's a small number, making up less than 1 percent of the 3.1 million bills it sent out last year. And many of those customers end up recognizing what happened. An irrigation pipe leaked, undetected. A float valve on the toilet got stuck. A hose was left on.

Theft happens, too. Deputy Director Ivey Schmitz said a neighbor once hopped her fence to use her hose to help fill his pool faster.

As part of a new customer service focus, the utility is now considering changes in how it calculates those exceptional bills.

The utility currently charges customers in tiers. The ones who use the lowest amounts of water - as is the case for 80 percent of families - pay $1.60 for every hundred cubic feet of water, which is the equivalent of 748 gallons. What ends up racking up the high bills, though, is that when customers use more than 45 ccf, they pay $11.85 for each one. So for someone like Kane, who was told he used 298 ccf, that adds up quickly.

The utility now is contemplating charging them for the amount that goes through the meter - but at their normal tier rate - as long as the problem is addressed and their bills are back to normal.

That would mean a loss of roughly $1 million, but it's not clear how that would affect overall water rates.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild is still mulling the fix. The new method, he acknowledged, probably works out for citizens, who would be less likely to get sticker shock in cases of unusual water use. But, he said, he wants to see how the cost increase could be absorbed and what it could do to rates. "I'm not convinced either way yet," he said.

The City Council approved Tucson Water's five-year finance plan last week.

The actual rate recommendations will come in April, but for now, it calls for an increase in water sales revenues of roughly 8 percent per year over the life of the plan.

In the interim, the utility continues to enforce the old policy, but is keeping a "shadow" file to show the council what would have happened if the new structure was in place.

It is also working toward an electronic metering system that would allow consumers to see their usage in real time, although that's probably still several years out.

Deputy Director Schmitz said there's an acknowledgment that unexpected bills can be a hardship. "We know there are a lot of people struggling out there. It's just one more thing in a slate of things happening in people's lives."

Dolores Kruger

"I nearly had a heart attack when I opened it."

West-side resident Dolores Kruger, 79, opened her September 2011 water bill to find she owed $1,600.

Kruger, who was visiting Chicago over the summer, wasn't even in Tucson during the period covered by the bill.

She usually pays roughly $100 a month.

Her landscaper was stumped. He found a small leak, but nothing that should have generated that kind of a bill, she said.

Her handyman, who went through the house and checked the plumbing fixtures and the toilet, also couldn't find anything amiss.

"You'd think if I'd really used that amount, my whole house would be floating," she said.

Water officials say that isn't always the case. A stuck valve on a toilet can easily dump 2,400 gallons of water down the sewer in a day, and it's not always audible.

But since Kruger was out of town, she couldn't trot down to the water office, so she tried calling.

Busy. Repeatedly.

By its own accounts, the water department that month was seeing a wait time of 19 minutes on average to answer calls, with a maximum wait time of 62 minutes.

That didn't count how many never got through because of busy signals. And nearly 41 percent of callers, more than 2,500 calls, just gave up while on hold.

The water company has since adjusted staffing so that it is now answering 90 percent of calls and its wait time is down to about two minutes.

The recent improvements came too late to help Kruger.

"I'm 79 years old, and I have heart problems. I thought, jeepers, I wasn't going to let this give me a stroke so I just decided to pay it."

She's not happy about not getting answers, since she's afraid to turn on her outside irrigation and risk another astronomical bill.

And she's not happy about the fact it's springtime and she has no flowers.

Miriam Klaiman

Miriam Klaiman, a 59-year-old attorney, stews every time she sees the file she's kept on her November 2010 water bill of $1,026.08.

Klaiman usually pays about $60 a month for water in her north-side home, so when Tucson Water offered to cut her bill by about half, that still didn't seem fair to her. There was no puddling and no subsidence that would indicate a leak of that magnitude, she said.

She opted to pursue an administrative hearing to challenge the bill.

Of the 4,500 high-bill inquiries, only about 40 a year go that route. If the customer goes for a hearing, they lose their chance at getting a "courtesy adjustment." The utility, once every three years, will essentially shave 50 percent off a high bill. Schmitz said a review of what other utilities do shows Tucson Water is generous in its policy, noting many cities give no adjustments at all.

Not very many - maybe three to five a year - win their administrative hearings.

The customer has to show they didn't use the water - a standard of proof that's very hard to meet.

Klaiman said Tucson Water never clearly demonstrated where the water went, and an inspector couldn't find any leaks on the property in the days after the bill was issued.

The utility suggested she had a leaking toilet, although she said a plumber had just finished fixing her toilet two months before the alleged overuse ever happened.

"By the code, when his bill is unusual and exorbitant, the citizen is presumed to be in the wrong," she said.

Since losing her case last summer, she's now paying $80 extra a month until she pays off the bill.

"I'm still plenty mad. And I'm still afraid. It could happen again. You have no recourse," she said. "Unless you can prove the city is at fault, there's nothing you can do."

Margie Machado

Margie Machado believes her water bill of $1,638 last September literally gave her an anxiety attack.

Two weeks after getting it, the 65-year-old on a fixed income went to the hospital, unable to catch her breath.

"I kept thinking, 'How could we owe that much?'"

Machado and her 69-year-old husband, Fred, own a south-side home, where her grandson lives.

She went through the potential liabilities: There's no pool. Little landscaping. Laundry is done once a week or so.

In the past year otherwise, her bill never topped $58.

Water staffers chalked it up to a leak. But when the inspector came out, Machado said, no problems were found.

"It's like you're wrong and they're right, and there's nothing you can do about it," Machado said. She said she never got a satisfactory explanation, and her bill was right back to normal the next month.

Machado said she wondered if there isn't something wrong with the meters.

Water officials say that's a common misperception, but say a stuck meter essentially results in a zero read. They say it's akin to an odometer. It's not going to run unless water is going through the meter.

If anything, they say, the older meters tend to under-read.

The water company knocked the bill down to $816.38.

The couple is paying another $40 a month until June 2013.

"Every time I have to pay the bill," she said, "I start crying."

Free audits available

Tucson Water offers a free water audit for homeowners.

Team members will spend from two to four hours at residential properties, checking for leaks, measuring the flow rates of showers and faucets, checking to see if irrigation is being done properly.

The resident will get tips and advice, depending on the results of the analysis, to decrease water use. For more information, call 791-3242.

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at rbodfield@azstarnet.com or 573-4243.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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