Government & Politics
 

Customers on S&WB disconnection list complain of ongoing billing problems

Karen Gadbois / The Lens

Thousands of customers have complained of Sewerage and Water Board billing errors over the past few years.

In November, the embattled New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board put its collections process on hold. Responding to thousands of customer complaints about bizarrely inflated bills, the utility decided to stop cutting service to delinquent accounts. Now, the Sewerage and Water Board is running short on cash, and collections have officially resumed. Late last month, Sewerage and Water board officials said that as many as 17,000 customers — 12 percent of the utility’s total accounts — could be at risk of losing their water service over delinquent bills.

As of Wednesday, at least two dozen of those accounts were shut off.

The utility has the capacity to cut service to 50 customers per day. According to Sewerage and Water Board officials and Mayor LaToya Cantrell, the process began with some of the most delinquent customers — “delinquent bad actors,” as Cantrell’s communications director put it.  And they would receive plenty of notice — a shutoff notice 10 days in advance, followed by phone calls as the date approached. People whose bills were in a formal dispute process would not be shut off.

“The disconnection list was carefully vetted and every attempt was made to contact the account owners,” Sewerage and Water Board spokesman Richard Rainey wrote in an email. 

The Lens obtained the first day’s shutoff list through a public records request. The list is comprised of 44 account holders who were told that if they didn’t pay in full, set up a payment plan or formally dispute their bills, their service would be cut off. We were able to contact 12 of them, almost all of whom had complaints about the way they’ve been treated, and some who said their delinquent balances had nothing to do with the amount of water they actually used.

City Councilman Joe Giarruso — who, along with the rest of the council, has criticized the move to cut service when the Sewerage and Water Board has yet to resolve its billing errors — said the stories the customers told The Lens, if true, confirmed a prediction he made weeks ago.

“I was asked by a reporter, ‘What do you think about these water shutoffs,” Giarrusso said. “I said they’re going to have a black eye, the first, second, third time they shut off water for someone who didn’t deserve it. I didn’t think I’d see that this early.”

On Friday evening, Sewerage and Water Board spokeswoman D’Seante Parks issued a statement on the utility’s behalf, noting that most of the customers who spoke to The Lens were never disconnected, attributing that to the “due diligence of our customer service team.”

“The vast majority of customers pay their bills, and the utility does not want to shut off water to any account holder. The customer service department has been diligent and thorough throughout the return to the regular collections process,” the statement said.

‘For water?’

Nearly all the accounts on the list were residences rather than businesses. And none owed more than a few thousand dollars, far below some of the utilty’s largest unpaid balances as reported by The Advocate last month.

Three of the customers we spoke to had their water shut off.

One of them told The Lens his service was cut after a Sewerage and Water Board employee assured him it wouldn’t be. Another said he never received a written notice or a call before the shutoff. (The Sewerage and Water Board disputed that.)

Some said they had tried to fight questionable bills for years. Three of the delinquent customers said their accounts should have been in dispute, and therefore ineligible for disconnection, when they received notices last week that their water service could be cut. Two were able to avoid shutoffs. The third briefly lost service before setting up a payment arrangement and filing a new dispute, according to the Sewerage and Water Board.

Some agreed to payment plans, even when, they said, the payments would be a hardship. Sadith Pazbarahona, who is retired, owed nearly $900. She said she suspects there may have been something wrong with her monthly bills, but no one at the utility ever told her she could dispute her balance. She agreed to pay $160 to keep her water on, then $89 per month to pay down her delinquency.

“Plus the bill. Plus the bill,” she said, meaning the total will be about $150 to $160 per month. “That’s ridiculous. But you can’t live without water.”

Several people we spoke to described sudden increases in monthly bills they couldn’t explain, nor could plumbers who checked their properties for leaks. Some of the increases were drastic, hundreds of dollars or more per month. About 30,000 customers have complained about problem bills  over the past few years.

A few people we spoke to admitted that they hadn’t paid their bills in quite some time but said it was because they didn’t know what they owed.

After not receiving a bill for the better part of a year, he told The Lens, Paul Dufour paid $1,100 to keep his water on this week. Dufour said he was not given a chance to see a monthly breakdown of his bills or told he could try to dispute the balance before he did.

Victoria Weathering, who claimed she received a bill from the utility only about three times a year, said she was shocked to hear — from The Lens — that her balance was $4,650, a 600-day-old delinquency, according to the records.

“For water? That’s craziness,” she said.

According to the Sewerage and Water Board, Weathering has since set up a payment arrangement.

‘I had no idea’

Karl Everett said he has lived in his apartment for about 17 months. For the first 14 of those, he didn’t receive a water bill, he said.

When a bill finally came, Everett said it was about $1,200.

“I called them and they told me that I had to come down there and get it corrected because there was a problem with the system,” Everett said. But when he got to the Sewerage and Water Board office, about three months ago, he said it was “standing-room only.”

He didn’t have time to wait what he thought might be hours before he could talk to someone. 

That was the only bill he received, Everett said. He said he never again heard from the utility. (The Sewerage and Water Board said his account was opened in May 2017, and his address was updated in December, “due to a mail return.”)

Then his water was turned off on Wednesday.

“I had no idea they were going to turn off my water,” he said. “No notice. No call.”

The Lens reached him on the phone number listed in the Sewerage and Water Board’s records.

As of Thursday afternoon, he had yet to make it back to the utility’s office to try to resolve the situation and would need a friend to give him a ride.

“I’m going to have to figure out how to get down there tomorrow morning,” he said Thursday afternoon.

The Sewerage and Water Board disputed Everett’s account.

“We called the customer regarding the impending shutoff on 8/14/2018,” the statement said.

Another man, who asked The Lens not to use his name, was there Wednesday, before he lost service, and then again after he lost it, on Thursday.

The man said he lives alone. His bill was typically low until about a year ago, when it went up to about $180 per month, he said.

“I thought I had a busted pipe in the house,” he said. He said he hired a plumber to check it out, but nothing was wrong. He challenged his bills, he said, eventually finding out his water meter was broken. It was recently replaced. But the high bills have continued, he said, adding that several months ago a Sewerage and Water Board employee told him that the new meter had been misread. Officially, he owes about $1,800.

Last week he got a shutoff notice. But on Wednesday, after waiting for an hour and a half at the Sewerage and Water Board, he was told not to worry.

“They were going to work on something, and they weren’t going to shut it off,” he said. But later that day, they shut it off.

The Sewerage and Water Board did not respond to his allegation that his water was improperly shut off. But the utility said that the man set up a payment arrangement on Thursday and has since had his service restored.

‘I can’t live without water’

Another woman who also asked not to be named in this story told The Lens she’s been fighting her family’s water bills for more than two and a half years. She said she knows that a sudden increase — from $75 per month, to $300, then over $500 — was not their fault. What’s more, she said, the Sewerage and Water Board knew, or should have known. They were the ones who eventually fixed the problem

In late 2015, a pipe burst near their property, where the utility’s pipes connect to the house’s. The leak was on the publicly owned side of the connection, the woman said, making it the Sewerage and Water Board’s responsibility. But she and her husband were being billed for it. And they paid several of the large bills before they figured out what the problem was.

Once they did, they started paying what had been their normal billing amount — $75 per month — as they tried to dispute their growing balance.

“We sort of won the dispute but without actually getting to present our case to them,” the woman said. “They cut our outstanding amount in half.”

But their delinquency had grown into the thousands, and half was still more than they believed they should have owed. So they requested an administrative hearing at the utility, in order to present their case. In fact, she said, they requested a hearing multiple times but never heard back from the utility. Their outstanding balance was $1,365, according to the Sewerage and Water Board’s records.

This week, they got the shutoff call. The woman’s husband went to the Sewerage and Water Board on Wednesday, stopping the shutoff and finally getting a hearing date scheduled for next month.

The Sewerage and Water Board repaired the broken pipe last September, the woman said. 

Grace Kaynor described a similar situation. About a year and a half ago, she said, Kaynor also had a burst pipe near her house. She also thought it was the Sewerage and Water Board’s problem. But since she didn’t think the utility would get to it quickly, she called a plumber to take care of it. Still, her bill for the month skyrocketed.

“I got all this medical information that said they couldn’t shut the water off because my husband was sick,” she said. Kaynor’s husband, lawyer Sanford Kaynor, was paralyzed from a shooting in 2012. He died earlier this year. “I tried to settle it. I couldn’t settle it.”

Kaynor admits missing payments, though she said she had paid down part of a balance that, she said, grew to about $8,000. But she said she couldn’t remove the debt incurred from the broken pipe.

Kaynor said she took her bill to be reviewed. But after speaking to someone who seemed to be very helpful and willing to resolve her case, she said never heard back from the Sewerage and Water Board.

Her balance was about $4,700 when she found out she was facing a loss of service. This week, she got her bill put into dispute, but she also agreed to a payment plan. She’ll have to pay $267.50 per month on top of her normal bill, she said.

“I would prefer not to pay for something that’s not my fault. But I can’t live without water,” Kaynor said.

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About Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado covers the city of New Orleans and other local government bodies. He previously worked for Gambit, New Orleans’ alternative newsweekly, where he covered city hall, criminal justice and public health. Before moving to New Orleans, he covered state and local government for weekly papers in Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn.