HOUSTON - We have received emails from viewers saying they have received outrageously high water bills and they have no idea why. One senior citizen was hit especially hard.
The city of Houston eventually cut her off for non-payment.
"A couple of nights I just stayed here with no water which was very unsanitary,” said Shirley Smith. She asked KHOU for help, so we looked through her water bills dating back almost two years.
In February of last year her normal bill of $25 jumped to $222. The worst was yet to come for the 72-year-old.
The following November, the city sent her a water bill for $820. The very next month they sent her one for $1,100. All together, Ms. Smith owed the city $2100.
"It's just really taken a toll on me,” she said.
Extraordinarily high water bills took a toll on business owner Brad Hance, too.
Ten people work at his northeast Houston business where they analyze water samples. He said they don’t use a lot of water to do this. Records show that for years his normal monthly water bill was about $100 a month.
Then he said the city sent him water bills totaling, “over 19,000 dollars for three months water."
Hance said he “was shocked. We immediately called them." The city told Hance the same thing it told Ms. Smith - they must have a leak somewhere. Both Hance and Smith insisted they did not. They called plumbers who backed them up.
The city told them they could go through an appeals process.
WATER BILL APPEALS PROCESS:
1--Call 311 or email the city water department. Customer service reps will start an investigation. The city states it may take up to one billing cycle to approve or deny your appeal. If you are denied you can move to the second level of appeals.
To contact the city by phone: Customer Service: (713) 371-1400
To contact the city by email:
Residential Customers: email@example.com
Commercial Customers: firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the city by mail:
Utility Customer Service
P. O. Box 4863
Houston, TX 77210-4863.
2--you can get an administrative review of your case. This involves a field investigation to determine if your appeal will be denied or approved. The city states that an administrative review generally occurs within three months after you receive an unusually high water bill.
3--you can have an administrative hearing before an independent hearing examiner. The city states that you can request this hearing within 10 days of having an administrative review.
4--your last appeal will be a review of your case before the Water Adjustment Board. The city states that you can request this review within 10 days of having an administrative hearing.
You should know there is no way to win a total forgiveness of your unusually high, unexplainable water bill. City ordinance does not allow that.
If you win an appeal, you would have to pay double whatever your average consumption is. However, if your bill is greater than $4,000, you would have to pay the amount over $4,000. That’s because $4,000 is the maximum amount the city can forgive, according to the ordinance.
Brad Hance went through all four appeals steps and “won” the $4,000 maximum deduction allowed by ordinance. That left him owing $15,000 in water bills. He makes $500 a month payments. He will do so for years until the bill is paid.
As for Shirley Smith, she did not carry her case all the way through the appeals process. Houston Councilmember Michael Kubosh paid her a visit to see if he could help her but his hands were tied by the city ordinance.
Before she could seek any further solutions to her problem, Ms. Smith died.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner commented on her case, saying "I think in Ms. Smith's honor, I think we can put in a better safety net that will work much quicker, that will try to minimize the stress on our seniors and will give them the assistance that they need."
Turner did not give specifics but he did say he does not see a need to change the city ordinance.