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The Crisis of Complicated Water Bills

How do utility companies decide how much we owe?

Kevin Shay
Sep 19, 2018 · 9 min read
Photo: Bill Oxford/E+/Getty Images

Look at almost any area of society — political, financial, economic, healthcare, religious, social — and you will find a crisis. One that has particularly hit home for me lately pertains to water.

I’m not talking so much about the increase in tropical storms sparked by global warming that cause floods and threaten to compromise water supplies. Or the lack of clean water in areas of the world like Flint, Michigan, where a health crisis has resulted in increased lead levels. Or the controversy over whether bottled water is really healthier for you than tap.

The crisis I’m referring to involves the unnecessary difficulty of reading and understanding your own water bill. That is, if you are even given one and if it has basic information, such as how many gallons you use each month.

I’ve dealt with this issue for four decades, both as a consumer who pays water bills and a reporter who writes about such issues. Through the years, I have seen a little bit of everything — lies, manipulation, cutthroat political deals. And that was just in one suburban Texas water case.

Until the last two years, my personal experience with water and sewer bills has been fairly noncontroversial. I’ve gone to small court over other issues, like parking tickets and red-light camera summonses. I’ve filed complaints with state attorneys general and the Better Business Bureau over a perceived overcharge in auto repairs, mortgage fees, and other services. (Filing with the state agency is more effective, by the way.) I’ve taken on giant companies, such as Walmart, Sears, Pepco, Washington Gas, and Comcast, and small entities like Select Management. I haven’t won ’em all, of course, but I’ve prevailed enough to make me keep on.

It’s not so much the money at stake as it is the principle. Holding one rat bastard accountable for overcharging you is doing something beyond yourself. Who knows how many others have been overcharged and unassumingly paid without protest? Who knows how many consumers in the future will be spared the experience of paying too much because you took the time and trouble to say, “Not on my watch”?

When it comes to water rates, most of the times I’ve agreed with the bills and paid without a fuss since they’ve been relatively low. For a three-bedroom, three-bath house in the Dallas area in the 1990s, I merely paid $20 to $25 a month for water and sewer. As late as 2011, I only shelled out $11 to $15 a month in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in the Washington, D.C., area. In 2015, my water and sewer bill came to about $40 a month for a five-bedroom, three-bathroom house. All of those residences had washing machines, with the homes sporting outdoor faucets.

It’s only when the charges have risen significantly beyond the norm that I’ve raised hell. Usually, the cause has been something as innocuous — though annoying — as a leaky toilet flapper. When that happened in Texas in the 1990s, the water utility partially credited me after I documented the cause. When it happened in Maryland in 2016, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission declined to give me a break, despite not informing me of the sudden, steep increase in costs until almost three months after the fact.

Like any multibillion-dollar industry, the history of water is rife with animosity, corruption, drawn-out legal battles — the stuff of made-for-TV movies.

So I lobbied Montgomery County Council members and the state Public Utility Commission to force the sanitary commission to give consumers monthly bills, rather than quarterly ones. This would allow users to more quickly identify a change that could signify a leak and cut down on the huge cost upswing. Electricity utilities such as Pepco and BGE gave customers a monthly bill. Why couldn’t the sanitary commission?

Carla Reid, the water utility’s CEO, eventually replied in an email that while I made “an excellent point [that] makes perfect sense,” there were costs that would be prohibitive, such as having to substantially increase meter reading employees. They could switch to automatic meter reading, but that would also be costly. “These conditions are compounded by the fact that our billing system is 30 years old and fragile,” Reid said.

She added that an automatic meter reading system was among the projects in the agency’s capital improvements budget. But when that would come to fruition was anyone’s guess. The sanitary commission did implement changes last year to counter charges that large households unfairly pay more under the utility’s tiered structure. But that didn’t get to the heart of the billing issues.

Shortly after that campaign, I downsized to a two-bedroom apartment with only one bathroom and a washing machine. It was roughly the same size as the one that charged me about $15 a month for water.

However, my first water bill at the new site floored me: $31 for only 15 days. That came out to $62 per month. In ensuing months, I received bills for $58, $78, $75, and $72. Each for just one month.

In the midst of such insanity, I fired off an email to Texas-based Minol, a third-party billing firm that the complex used. A customer service representative replied that the Maryland complex where I lived did not base residents’ charges on how much water they actually used. Rather, Sawyer Flats employed a concept called “allocated billing,” in which a formula is used to come up with a charge based on how many residents live in each apartment and total water usage for the building.

Yeah, right. I’m supposed to lobby my neighbors to take fewer showers and not wash clothes as much.

Felicia Singh, a Sawyer Flats representative, explained further that apartment owners paid for a percentage of water use in common areas, but that percentage had been “slightly reduced.” Moreover, sanitary commission rates and overall use had increased, she said. “Since the individual bills generated are based on the overall usage throughout the community, we ask that all residents are diligent and work together to conserve and limit the overall consumption,” Singh said.

Yeah, right. I’m supposed to lobby my neighbors to take fewer showers and not wash clothes as much. Good luck with that.

The concept of charging based on the number of residents and overall community use is one that might sound good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice. Different people use different amounts of water. A three-resident unit can use less than a one-person apartment. If you want to stop one family from using so much water, charge them for what they actually use. I complained enough to get monthly bills to eventually decline to around $50, though I still had to pay the previous ones.

With that bad taste, I searched for another complex. I found a new two-bedroom, one-bath place down the street that employed metered water billing and even cost a little less in rent. At this new building, an employee said her water bill was around $30 a month.

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Copy of a water bill I received for three months for use at a one-bathroom apartment. “Bill estimation is an art form,” one official admitted. Photo: Kevin James Shay

But the problem, I soon discovered, was that a system that charges residents for how much water they use requires a water utility to actually read meters — not simply estimate charges based on a unit’s previous usage.

My first water bill from Utah-based Conservice — a third-party billing firm — was for $279. For three months. The bill didn’t say how many gallons I had used, or what the meter readings were.

I knew that figure wasn’t right and called Conservice immediately. A representative said the bill was based on readings and information supplied by the sanitary commission.

I complained to the apartment complex manager and wrote some unflattering social media reviews. She soon produced the sanitary commission-generated bill, which claimed I used 20,000 gallons of water in those three months, or about 6,667 gallons per month. In the five-bedroom, three-bath home, I had only utilized 4,000 gallons a month. In the similar apartment where I lived in 2011, I merely used about 1,500 gallons.

The sanitary commission bill included $49 in fees for Chesapeake Bay restoration, account maintenance, and infrastructure investment — which are paid by most users at the same rate regardless of household size. The final balance was $286. It also noted that the readings were estimated — based not on my use, but on the previous tenant’s bills. That means that tenant and others were similarly overcharged by the sanitary commission, unless they were running their shower and washing machine virtually nonstop.

The apartment manager recognized the error and made appropriate amends. She said she had told tenants that bills were based on actual meter readings, then found out by looking into my bill that they were based on estimates.

My almost $300 water bill was small compared to those others have been hit with, according to news reports.

In March, Mark Van Burik received a quarterly water bill of $8,117 for a four-unit rental building in New Brunswick, New Jersey. His previous bill was only $404. A city spokeswoman claimed the bill was accurate, read by a Sensus iPERL “smart” meter that employs magnetic technology to gauge water flow.

Another New Brunswick property owner received three bills in 2017 for more than $3,000 each, triple the size of the typical bill. Another said his bill was $2,238 — six times the previous one.

In New Orleans, thousands of customers were double billed after a new billing system was implemented. Many charges were based on estimates, rather than readings. “Bill estimation is an art form,” Marcie Edwards, then-director of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, told the Times-Picayune. “And there is, frankly, no utility that likes to do it, so we need to get to a point where we’re not.” She added that the Los Angeles system where she previously worked dealt with similar problems.

It’s not just residents being overcharged. Electronics giant Samsung paid some $568,000 more annually in water fees than it should have, according to a recent rate study by the city of Austin.

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Somewhere over the rainbow, there is an accurate and fair water bill. (Actually, this is just Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada.) Photo: Kevin James Shay

Like any multibillion-dollar industry, the history of water is rife with animosity, corruption, and drawn-out legal battles — the stuff of made-for-TV movies if much of the background wasn’t ironically so dry. To unearth it, you have to pore through mountains of reports and legal briefs.

But in this age of third-party billing that seems designed to further cloud the truth and raise costs, we can demand to know simple information, such as how many gallons of water are used, so we can try to determine if the bill is wildly inaccurate, or just the usual who-knows variety.

My latest Conservice water bill was substantially lower than the first, but still higher than I thought it should be. I asked for a more detailed accounting of how many gallons I used and when the meter readings were actually done. I asked to be able to read the meter myself to check on its accuracy.

Ten days later, a representative from my complex said she was “unable to get the date the meter was last read,” and that “due to liability reasons,” I would not be able to read my own meter to make sure readings are done, much less accurate. She supplied me with a bill that somehow showed I used 2,333 gallons of water a month — despite not being able to say when the meter was read — and had fees and taxes that accounted for 41 percent of the total. In electric and natural gas bills, such fees only account for 15 percent of the total.

So I filed another complaint about the high fees and inability to get accurate readings. When that went nowhere, I filed a complaint against the water company’s high percentage of fixed fees with the state Public Service Commission, which is supposed to regulate utilities. I received a response from the PSC saying it could not investigate the matter. The PSC claimed that the WSSC isn’t “generally subject to…the jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission when it is supplying services within the designated boundaries of the WSSC district.”

Oh really? So how come the PSC got involved in the aforementioned WSSC case involving large rate users supposedly overpaying? So when large WSSC users have a beef, it’s under the jurisdiction of the PSC, but not when smaller users file a complaint?

When I posed that query, a PSC official responded by saying I had to file that complaint within “30 days after the date on which the [WSSC] set the rate or fixed the charge or assessment.” So if I miss this arbitrary deadline — which apparently only comes once a year or so — tough luck.

I’m not giving up. I alerted county officials and plan to pursue this matter with WSSC and other utilities that are increasing fixed fees.

The process, like water flowing down a falls, never seems to end.

Written by

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see https://www.amazon.com/Kevin-J.-Shay/e/B004BCQRTG. Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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