For 50 years, Bev Edelman’s husband, Ken, was dutiful about ensuring accounts were paid on time. Bev never had to worry.
But when Ken died five years ago at the age of 73, Bev’s world went topsy-turvy. She had to teach herself all the things she’d relied on Ken for since they were married in 1971. She began household accounting and pumping her own gas (Ken, ever the gentleman, had always taken on that task for his bride). She figured it out. And soon, she found a routine.
Then came the sky-high water bills.
After 2 1/2 years in her Memorial area home, racking up water bills of $80 or so a month, Bev received a bill for $409.62 at the end of August.
According to the city of Houston’s water department, the average household uses about 4,000 gallons of water a month. Bev’s August bill charged her for 17,000 gallons in July.
In a city that issues 480,000 water bills a month, mistakes are bound to happen. Last year, 632 residents contested their water bills.
Bev didn’t yet realize that she was one of hundreds. She chalked it up to an error on her part. Maybe she’d run the sprinklers too much, she reasoned. Determined to fix the issue herself, she vowed to conserve in the coming month. She even let her backyard grass die.
But this wasn’t a Bev problem. It was a city problem. And it was the beginning of a convoluted, months-long nightmare Bev shared with hundreds more Houstonians forced to fight City Hall last year.
The September bill
As the day Bev’s bill usually arrives approached, she grew giddy: She wanted to see how well she’d done.
“Imagine my surprise,” Bev says, “when I received a bill for $1,069.50.”
Rather than cutting her use to 4,000 gallons or less, as she’d expected, the city charged her for 42,000 gallons of water.
That could happen if a pipe is leaking.
“If you’re the property owner, you own the pipes underground. You own everything on your property,” says Erin Jones, a member of the water department’s communications team.
But here’s the thing: “You would probably see water coming up in your yard. You’d see damp grass and puddles of water, even if it’s dry outside,” Jones says.
Bev had none of that. Her grass died of thirst.
She called the city and was told leaky toilets can often cause high bills. Add food coloring to the toilet tank, the woman on the phone told her. If the dye shows up in the toilet bowl, there’s a leak.
Bev tried the food coloring test. No leak.
She called the sprinkler guy. No leak.
She called a handyman. No leak.
She called the city again, and again, and again, waiting on hold for more than 30 minutes each time, she says.
She continued to conserve and braced for the next bill.
The bills keep coming
By October, when the city charged Bev for 29,000 gallons of water, she was furious. She continued her phone calls, celebrating a small victory when the city finally sent someone to check her meters.
Turns out they’d been broken, producing an incorrect reading of her water usage. On Nov. 1, the city granted her $1,330.62 in account credits, and she breathed a momentary sigh of relief.
Fifteen days later, Bev received her latest monthly bill with a total amount due of $6,937.31 – “well over two Social Security payments,” she notes. And just below the total, Bev read a sentence that scared her: “To avoid late fees or service interruption, please pay Total Amount Due by 12/7/2022.”
She worried: “Are they going to shut off my water?”
An unfriendly process
Bev didn’t know what to do.
“Ken would have been downtown already and been at the water company, screaming bloody murder to someone and would have gotten this resolved,” she tells me. “I don’t even like to drive downtown.”
Bev isn’t alone. In addition to the 632 residents who contested their water bills last year, I suspect many more don’t know how to speak up or give up after that first 30 minutes on hold.
Contesting a water bill is a laborious process. The first step is to request an administrative review, which can take up to 30 days to complete. If customers aren’t satisfied with the outcome, they can demand an administrative hearing conducted by an independent examiner, which can take another 60 days. If residents still aren’t satisfied, they can ask an independent panel to review the hearing examiner’s decisions and documentation. The panel’s decision is final.
The best course of action to take during this process, according to Jones, is to continue paying your average usage – what you’d assume your bill would have been that month, if all had gone according to plan. “That way, even if they put a hold on your account, it won’t accrue late fees and it will still show you in good status.” In short, according to Jones, it will avoid an interruption in service.
Contesting a water bill is a cumbersome and – in Bev’s case – maddeningly opaque slog. But Jones points to two forms on the water department’s website that residents can turn to for help.
The first is the “Unusually Large Bill Application,” in which residents can apply once a year for an adjustment toward an “unexplained usage over 200 percent of the average usage.”
Bev tried that form.
She also tried the “Exceptional Circumstances Adjustment Application,” which residents can use once every two years after an unexplained bill of more than 500 percent of their typical usage. The credits can’t exceed $4,000.
Bev never heard back from the city.
At least, not until she reached out to a journalist.
Sunlight works wonders
Bev first emailed me on Feb. 12. She told me she loves Houston for its diversity and weather. “One thing I do not love is that I have a $5,000 water bill,” she wrote. “Any help would be greatly appreciated.”
We met at her house and she brewed a couple cups of pour-over coffee as we pored over the bills she’d diligently filed away. Everything she’d told me in her email checked out.
So I called the city’s water department and peppered Jones with questions about Bev’s situation: Had they received her complaints? On what dates? Was her case under review?
The applications Bev had filled out online say it could take 90 days for her dispute to roll through. But Bev never even received a confirmation receipt, and she worried whether her complaints were being heard before her 90-day window of action ended.
On March 1, I sent the water department a slew of questions – both specific to Bev’s case, and general inquiries about how to contest bills.
Two hours later, Bev emailed me: “You obviously did something because I just got a call” from the water department, she told me. Within two days, the city notified her it planned to clear her $5,000-plus past due balance and issue a $272 refund check.
A couple weeks later, the check arrived in the mail.
That’s great for Bev. But it shouldn’t take a journalist’s intervention to reach a resolution she’d been seeking for six months. The purpose of city government is to help residents in their quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When the city screws up, it should work with residents like Bev to fix the error instead of saddling her with that task.
Bev felt brushed off and burdened. But Houstonians deserve to feel seen and heard when they raise valid complaints to City Hall.
In the words of Bev, “Is that too much to ask?”