Woman Hit With $9,000 Water Bill After City Refuses To Believe Her

Rounding out the trilogy that began with the $3,000 cable bill, followed by the $1.3 million power bill, is the story of an Atlanta woman who has spent the last year trying to tell the city’s water department about her wildly increasing bills — and who now faces a $9,000 bill for her efforts.

It all began last July, the woman tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, when her monthly water bill jumped from an average of less than $100 to $497.

“I assumed I had a leak, so I got a handyman to come out and check everything,” she tells the paper.

The handyman gave her plumbing a clean bill of health, so she sent in a $100 payment and filed an appeal, which the city turned down.

But it did send someone out to look at her meter and found nothing wrong.

In December, her bill was suddenly up to $758.

She once again talked to the city and arranged to pay $120/month until the matter could be heard in court.

Once again, the city checked her meter and said all was fine — in spite of the bill jumping up by 750% in only a few months.

And it was only going to keep going up.

Her bill for April came in at $1,155 — plus another $1,430 in late charges for bills she was disputing.

She and her lawyer met with the city a couple weeks later and it was decided that a usage monitor would be installed on her meter and a “leak detection specialist” would be paying a visit to see if they could locate the problem.

Miraculously, the next month her bill was only $175.

But not because the city had figured out the source of the obvious error. No, says the woman, the city insisted that she had gotten the invisible and undetected leak fixed.

“This is absolutely absurd. I have no way of proving I did not get a leak fixed, because I did not have a leak,” she tells the AJC.

Her request for a new meter was turned down by the city.

But whatever magical fix she had done to stop the nonexistent leak has apparently failed, as the woman opened up her water bill the other night and was slapped upside the head with an invoice for $9,224.40 — $6,705.72 in new charges and $2,638.68 past due.

“I had a leak, and if I had gotten it fixed, how would my bill be this high? ” she asked the AJC.

A rep for the city says it’s trying to figure out what’s going on and that a June 15 inspection of the meter found no problems.

June 15 is also the date the city finally got around to installing that usage monitor promised in the April meeting with the woman’s lawyer.

The rep says they will need to wait 30 days before they can analyze the data from the monitor, which means no answers until at least mid-July.

And here’s the kicker.

Even if her appeal is successful, the city has told the woman that any relief to her bills would only be for the most recent two months.

“The longer they put off finding a resolution, the more likely I’ll be saddled with a $9,000 bill,” she says. “If they admit I don’t have a leak, why won’t they just replace the meter?”

$9,000 water bill has Buckhead woman at a loss [AJC.com]

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  1. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    This isn’t clear to me in the article here,

    They checked the usage monitor several times – but I don’t see whether the usage monitor corroborated the customer’s story or the water company’s story. If it supports the customer, then likely there is a leak between her property and the city’s water line. If the usage monitor supports the water company’s side, then either there’s a leak in her home or the usage monitor is broken.

    Without knowing what it listed it’s tough to make any assumptions.

    • fenra says:

      They first installed the usage monitor on June 15th. They have to wait until July to analyze the data from the monitor.

      • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

        Several times before that she mentions they came and read the usage meter and saw nothing wrong. The June 15th installation is for a different sort of meter. An example: “But it did send someone out to look at her meter and found nothing wrong.”

        So is “nothing wrong” meaning it matches their records, or just means they don’t see a problem with the meter itself. As I said, not enough info in that regard.

        • RandomLetters says:

          She mentions they checked her normal meter several times. The usage moniter isn’t mentioned till after that fact.

    • longfeltwant says:

      Aren’t water-usage bills calculated from the meter readings? Is there a second meter farther away that they could be checking? I always thought the water bill was directly related to the numbers reported on the meter.

  2. Sorta Kinda Lucky Soul says:

    It’s called bureaucracy. Nobody wants to admit there *might* be something wrong because then, with any government entity, someone has to take the blame. It’s the little red hen syndrome, everyone with the “not me” answers. Unfortunately, unless this lady can drum up a whole bunch of bad PR – or she has a really good and well connected lawyer — she may well be stuck with this bill. Not only will nobody admit she could not have used that much water, but then people will have to make adjustments in the accounting systems, which will require override, which will require audit trails and explanations and will, lastly and finally, make someone’s department look bad. I don’t care if it’s a city/county fed or state government entity, that’s how it works. Who can I blame and how can I make sure I look good are the primary rules to live by. Unfortunately, in this case she is guilty until proven innocent, and like she said, she can’t prove what she didn’t do.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      Go to court, and have an inspector do a full run of her home and search for leaks (oh wait, they already did that!). That’s evidence for court.

    • vastrightwing says:

      In this case, the answer is to have TV crew from the local TV station do an investigation because at least this will make a great news story how a big bad city government is trying to CYA control on this poor woman. You are correct. No one in the city wants to look bad for the FUBAR that occurred. So yea, this woman is doomed unless she can cause even more embarrassment to the city by them trying to screw her over.

  3. AustinTXProgrammer says:

    I don’t know what this lady’s finances are but why a handyman and not a licensed plumber? Maybe even a second one? Why isn’t she taking daily meter readings? City bureaucracy is rarely going to help, but there are ways that cost a lot less than $9k to put herself into a better position.

    I seriously doubt it is the meter, it’s either human error (billing accounts switched, using the wrong multiplier from the meter, etc) or there is a leak.

    • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

      I imagine it’s a leak or an appliance is using an excessive amount of water.

      The first thing a plumber is going to do is shut off everything and look at the meter to see if it’s spinning. If it isn’t, that essentially rules out an actual leak. If the city checked the calibration of the meter, then it should be accurate too.

      As annoying as it would be, you’d almost have to shut off everything and selectively turn on anything that uses water, while watching the meter to see what’s happening.

      • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

        But if there’s a leak between the city and her meter, then her meter would show, say, 500 gallons and the city would be seeing a drain of 5,000 gallons.

        • Ajith Antony says:

          In my area there is only one meter for the specific premise. Perhaps there is a meter upstream that manages a neighborhood or something. If there were a leak from the city main line and the on-premise meter, then the leak would probably go undetected unless it was ad enough to cause an unusual pattern on the upstream meter.

      • nicless says:

        I’d really have to imagine something would be floating if she had a $7,000.00 worth of water leak.

    • Wesblog says:

      Atlanta resident here – The Dept of Watershed management locks every water meter with a proprietary bolt. You cannot read your own meter.

      When I complained about this I was given some excuse about expensive equipment that they didn’t want home owners to break. I was told I could determine my water usage by looking at my bill every month.

      • whogots is "not computer knowledgeable" says:

        When did that happen?

        Also, does that mean you can’t turn off the water supply?

        • AtlantaCPA says:

          I think they did that about 4 or 5 years ago. Mine is not only locked but buried. They read them with a radio receiver so they don’t have to actually lift the lid anymore.

          And the city water dept is notorious for errors. Like unbelievable over the top notorious.

          • whogots is "not computer knowledgeable" says:

            Odd, I only left in the summer of 2010 and was still able to read my meter and shut off my supply at that time. My street’s water lines were replaced in 2008 or 2009, so you’d think they’d have buried the meters then.

  4. Emperor Norton I says:

    There is another possibility here: Her line has been tapped by another property that doesn’t have its own water line or that one pays the minimum & uses her water.

    • The Cupcake Nazi says:

      So they magically dug a trench and tapped her water without anyone noticing?

      • Emperor Norton I says:

        It’s happened before.
        I remember the story from years ago how an elderly woman noticed that her water bill spiked whenever her neighbor was home, which wasn’t often. The neighbor went away for weeks at a time.
        And from what I understand about Atlanta’s water bills since they privatized the system, they’re among the highest in the country.

        • whogots is "not computer knowledgeable" says:

          You’re correct that rates are high, but wrong about the reason. Atlanta has municipal water. The rates started increasing because of crumbling infrastructure. In the late 1990s, there was a sewer collapse at a hotel next to the Turner offices, which led everyone to realize that the sewer and water system had seen no maintenance at all for about a hundred years. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of sewer and water pipes — not just mains — have been replaced since then.

          So the rates aren’t high because of corruption _now_ so much as corruption _during the entirety of the 20th century_.

      • FLConsumer says:

        I’ve seen this in multi-family actually. Four 9-storey condos were built by the same developer BUT were two separate condo associations. Some of the plumbing was common/inter-connected. No one knew this until something went wrong with the main of one of the buildings and in shutting down that building, another building lost water. It was that way for 20+ years.

    • odarkshineo says:

      any water parks open nearby? someone get a new pet whale? 9k$ is a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOT of water. this much would flood a property if there was a leak.

    • framitz says:

      I believe this is a real possibility. Hadn’t thought of that one, and I’ve actually seen it with electricity theft.

  5. Cvscam says:

    It depends where the meter is located I know some places the meter is at the street so a leak in the underground line would show as her using it.

    • MrEvil says:

      But $9000 worth of water leaking even underground isn’t going to go unnoticed. That much water is going to cause some MAJOR liquefaction of the ground surrounding the leak, depending on the area possibly even a massive sink-hole. The only exception would be if the home happens to sit on a groundwater recharge zone. Then that tap water is going to percolate into an aquifer.

    • framitz says:

      When I lived just outside San Antonia one of my boys put a water hose in a crack in our front yard and turned the water on and left it. I found it about 5 to 7 days later, the water was still running and what got my attention was a crackling sound that turned out to be roots tearing as the ground swell the crack shut. I turned off the water, but had to cut the hose as I could not pull it from the crack, the ground held it that tightly.

      So, it is possible to have a leak and not see anything on the surface, depending on the ground.

      Water bill was about 5 times normal that month.

      Then there was the time the 8 inch water main exploded under my front walk… at least THAT was on the city side and they fully restored my walk and yard (the hole was 15 feet deep, I thought a bomb had gone off!)

  6. Kaleey says:

    I think once they determine that the leak is somewhere other than her property, then she can just go to the press loud and clear. Tell the papers that the problem was on their side all along, and they still have the nerve to hold her for the bills she is appealing. Get a good lawyer and take them to court – those bills will go away fast.

    If they do replace the meter, lets hope they don’t shuffle it off to someone else – otherwise this story will be back with a different name.

    FTA:
    [Water company talking head said] said, “We did install a data logger, which measures hour-by-hour usage that can help us determine if there are any times of the day when usage seems out of kilter.” The agency has to wait for 30 days to pull the data from the monitor, she said, “so that means we can’t know anything until the middle of July.”

    Really? It creates one log file, at the 30 day mark? It’s impossible to poll it sooner? Who designs something like that? 30 days is plenty of data, but they can’t pull info at 10 days and see if the amounts extrapolate to $6,000 in new charges by the end of the billing cycle?

  7. Scoobatz says:

    Is it too difficult to look at the meter before going to bed, then check to see if the number changed in the morning? You don’t need a handyman or a monitoring system for this simple task and what I would consider the starting point in this investigation.

    And, if this check was performed, why isn’t it mentioned anywhere in the story?

    • bkeyport says:

      Problem is, most water companies use faceless meters now. No way for the consumer to check their usage.

    • HalOfBorg says:

      Meter (like ours) could be underground out by the road. Hard to access without the correct wrench, then it’s easy.

  8. Red_Eye says:

    This has been ongoing in Atlanta for 6 years or more. These electronic meters have been on the news all the time since install with these crazy readings. Its a crying shame that after so long nothing is really fixed and the people are still having to fight.

    • rekoil says:

      Came here to say this. I lived in a 20-unit townhome development in Midtown until two years ago, and I can think of 5-6 different neighbors (including the service for courtyard irrigation that the HOA paid for) that received four- (and in one case, five-) figure water bills out of the blue. Eventually they were all resolved after filing disputes, but no fault was ever forthcoming – the overbilling just magically credited back a few months later.

    • Marlin says:

      Problem is; many of those reports are people getting a TRUE bill. Older meters, even power, are just gears that wear over time. So they measure less than you really use. When newer meters go in they now are more accurate. So seeing a 5-10% increase is not outside normal occurrence for some.
      Yea if the bills goes from normal range to swimming pool then thats probably more than just a more accurate meter.

  9. GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

    Wouldn’t fixing the leak require a plumbing permit? Either she did the work w/o a permit, or it never happened. The water company should have to prove that a repair was done. Shouldn’t be that hard. All PVC is dated, and you can tell galvanized pipe that is fairly new from that which is old.

    • Costner says:

      Not many homes (outside of a trailer park) use PVC supply lines, and galvanized really isn’t used anymore. I’m guessing the supply lines would be copper, and if there was a fix it should be obvious as the new copper would be bright and would not have the aged darker appearance. Or if they found sections of PEX where everything else is copper it would be obvious as well.

      That said – there is no way this was a leak that she fixed. In order for that much water to be used, the main line coming into her house would need to be running full bore almost all month. The only possible way I could see this being at all possible (without a resulting flood in the home) is if there was an irrigation system and the main line was broken. However if that was the case you would have a swamp for a yard, and you would still hear massive gushing of water 24 hours a day (which the city would have heard when they installed their data logging equipment).

      Seems to me the city is trying to cover their rears, and now that this has hit the media they will be in full-on damage control because even they know it isn’t feasible for her to use that much water without it being very obvious.

  10. Velifer says:

    I’m not in lurve with all of my water company’s policies, but they did call me when they noticed my usage spiked so I could chase down the leak, and even sent out someone to check service at the curb and look at the leak indicator to see if there was a problem in the supply line to the house.

    Yes, found a leak, and while I did have to pay for the water that dripped out, at least it wasn’t a full month’s worth. That’s what should have happened to this woman.

  11. Invader Zim says:

    Could be how the water meters are read. Some places use a wireless configuration to send in meter reads. Others may use a separate device that is on the outside wall of a house that is supposed to reflect what the meter inside says. Others are meters kept just off the street. It does make sense that 9000 dollars worth of water would usually leave behind a telltale sign. Unless shes living in a ark I would consider other issues.

  12. Costner says:

    This is idiotic. If she had a leak it would be MASSIVE. As in enough water to fill several swimming pools each week massive. The sound of running water through her meter would be more than obvious, so clearly this is not a leak.

    The usage monitor showed something far different from what the meter was showing – and yet they claimed she fixed her magical leak before sending her a bill with $6700 in new charges.

    The city of Atlanta should be ashamed of themselves. They have spent far more time bickering about this and installing usage meters and fighting her than it would have taken to simply replace the meter and see what happened.

    Not only should she have a new meter installed, but they should wipe out her entire balance as a gesture of goodwill. I know… that is wishful thinking especially in Atlanta.

    It could be worse I suppose… she could live in Detroit.

    • HogwartsProfessor says:

      Agreed. My water bill doesn’t go up that much when I fill my pool, and it’s a medium-sized quik set pool. This would be as if I filled it, dumped it, filled it, dumped it, over and over. It would be obviously wet. Where did all the water GO?

      • chemmy says:

        I live in her area and it’s been really dry too so a sudden amount of water would likely pool up as the clay doesn’t absorb it quickly at all. Also, my monthly water bill runs about $15…. AND I filled my 10,000 gallon swimming pool with the hose and my bill that month was only $40.00…. How the eff much is $9,000 worth of water and where could it have gone????

        I hate disputing stuff like this with the city because they’re just inclined to ignore you and hope you will go away… by the time they attempt to look like they are helping, the problem is so much bigger!

  13. ScottG says:

    Going from $100 to $497 (a 5x increase) my first thought would not be a leak, it would be a billing error – including a problem with the meter. That’s a lot of water. The article only mentions the total dollars, but my water bill also includes the usage as well. I wonder if that also increased, as per the bill, or just the total amount? I think I would be reading the meter daily after that $497 bill.

  14. crispyduck13 says:

    “Even if her appeal is successful, the city has told the woman that any relief to her bills would only be for the most recent two months.”

    Lawsuit. You can’t just sit back and tell someone “even though we’ve been fraudulantly overcharging you over the last 6 months by the time we get it all sorted out we’ll credit you the most recent 2.” It doesn’t work like that. What idiot made that statement??

    • the Persistent Sound of Sensationalism says:

      This. The city needs to make it right if it is indeed their fault. If they don’t, I hope she punitively sues them.

    • Consumer007 says:

      The idiot who runs their billing department.

  15. framitz says:

    Hire a professional to find and fix the leak that the ‘handyman’ missed.
    A leak seems like the only logical cause.

    • ScottG says:

      I hope that was snark, because a leak is not the only logical reason – not even close.

      Could be an intermittent problem with the meter
      Could be a problem with the meter reader (either the person reading or the unit they use to take the reading)
      Could be a problem with the billing system

      All of those are logical

    • Coleoptera Girl says:

      But if she did that, then her yard wouldn’t be a nationally-protected swampland any longer and she’d have to start mowing again! /sarc

      • SubDude says:

        A subterranean leak of that magnitude over that length of time would surely present itselt somewhere on the property (new marshland, sinkhole, previously unnoticed fishing pond). I am leaning towards a faulty meter being the issue.

    • Scoobatz says:

      Checking the Watershed website, the water usage rate is about $4.63 per CCF. Since her bill (of new charges) was about $6706, that means she uses about 1448 CCF of water/month — just about 181 times the average of a typical user in Atlanta. Based on these numbers, this equates to just over 1 million gallons of water used by this woman a month.

      Yeah, the logical answer is that she has a small leak. Great detective work.

  16. Ablinkin says:

    The arrogance of the city shows when the woman had to “lawyer up” in April to get a usage monitor in June. This monitor is a data recorder which will show times and amounts of usage.

    There is no good reason for this jump in billing to go unnoticed and then for officials to drag their feet makes it awful suspicious.

  17. nybiker says:

    Here in New York City, your water bill not only includes water you consume, but there is a sewage charge as well. The sewage charge is 1.59 x your water usage charge. Our bills come quarterly and mine is usually the minimum amount of around $100 for the 3 months. That’s for 2 people in a house with a dishwasher & washing machine. So, $9,000 for one month, yikes. I do have a meter in my laundry / furnace room and I can see the dial spin when water is coming in. The city has been installing the wireless systems so that the water folks get a daily updated status of my account. I even signed up for the early warning system with regards to an abnormal amount of water being used. I’d get an email if something goes haywire.

  18. SubDude says:

    My next door neighbor had an issue with his water bills and intermittent pressure falls. He called to say he thought the meter was bad. They came, looked at it, and said it was fine. And by looked at it I mean that is literally all they did. They lifted the cover, looked at it and determined it was not the meter. This went on for several months. The problem mysteriously went away only after he persuaded to do a more thorough investigation and replace the faulty meter. Also, a quick way to check for a leak on your side of the meter is to make sure no water is running in the house and see if the meter is still spinning. That’s how I determined I had a leak under the slab at a previous house.

  19. SilverBlade2k says:

    Lawyer up, sue them. It’s the only recourse she has now.

  20. Consumer007 says:

    Clearly the billing system or the billing department has a leak, and why nobody started looking THERE is beyond me!!!

  21. bitstone says:

    When I was doing consulting in KC, I kept a place in a new apartment complex (I was first person in the apartment). The first few months the water usage was 1000-3000 per month but suddenly it went up to 7000, then 10000, then 15000 gallons. I was only there 2-3 days a week and didn’t use that much water. I went round and round with the water company, had maintenance check the apt, and finally just started reading the meter every morning when there and recording the readings. When I showed them how little water was used they claimed that that meter had a multiplier that needed to be applied. I contacted the meter manufacturer and got a letter from them that that was in fact no multiplier to be applied. But still the water billing company refused to believe that I wasn’t filling the complexes pool monthly. It took a lawyer and threatening a lawsuit to get them to back down and agree that they were reading it wrong.

  22. Jujubecool says:

    If she had a leak in her home that could have amounted in a $9,000 bill there would have been signs of mold and rot all through that house. A leak that big would cause that whole house to smell. If 3 separate companies came out and did not find a leak…there is no leak. The meter should be checked by an outside company…one that doesn’t have anything to gain. Then Atlanta Watershed needs to check their billing system for errors because they are the root of the problem not this woman. I would have hired an attorney by now if I were her.

  23. sailorstarfairy says:

    There’s gotta be something more to this because even though I worked in a totally different industry (hotels) there’s gotta be at least one person who does the nightly audits at the city water department. That person HAD to have seen that bill and wondered “WTF? 9000 bucks? How many gallons of water???” I mean…really. Someone HAD to have seen it and reported it to someone higher up than them. I know that there were times when the computer errored and posted two nights of room and tax on a customers bill, but I always caught that and fixed it or left word with the manager who would call up the billing dept at corporate to explain why the second night was comped.