With city water bills hitting mailboxes this month, Bronx homeowners and businesses could be finding themselves soaked.
Some are already finding themselves in losing battles with the city over their bills.
The city’s new high-tech automatic water meter readers have been accused of drowning folks with hefty – and incorrect – bills.
After releasing a study in April that new meters have not made the system more accurate, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio held an oversight hearing Thursday, August 9, to air complaints from over 500 constituents citywide and “shortcomings” in the City Department of Environmental Protection’s appeals process “that can result in liens and foreclosure for homeowners and businesses.”
“This is a case where according to the city, the customer is always wrong.” said de Blasio, who wants a fairer appeals process.
One Bruckner Boulevard homeowner, who asked to remain anonymous, said his bill has tripled in the last three years since a new automated meter was installed in 2009.
“I went from paying $1,000 a quarter to $3,500 a quarter,” he said. “That’s impossible. How did I use that much more water than I used to in the past – ever? It doesn’t make any sense, nothing has changed, and I have been there for 18 years. There is no leak on the premises, and actually I have four less people living in my house than I did in previous years.”
The angered resident had to go before a DEP arbitrator to dispute his claim.
“There should be an independent resource you can go to and say you are having a problem,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to go to the person I am having the argument with, and they have the power to say if I am right or wrong.”
Councilman Jimmy Vacca agreed.
“A large issue with water bills is the dispute process. If someone is dissatisfied with their bill, they may only dispute it in writing, and the dispute resolution process takes months.” “In the meanwhile, customers accrue late penalties while awaiting a response from DEP. If one does not have proof that there was an accidental leak, it is extremely unlikely that the bill will be adjusted. The burden of proof is on the customer, not DEP,” Vacca said.
“Many constituents who have come to my office with a water bill dispute feel as though it is a foregone conclusion that they will have to pay their exorbitant water bills and have very little faith in the agency to look into anything for them.”
But DEP spokesman Christopher Gilbride said bill disputes have actually hit a five-year low.
DEP began installing automated meter readers in February of 2009 to improve billing accuracy and give customers tools to better manage their water use.
Prior to that, meters were read in person by customer service agents. When they could not gain access, customers received estimated bills.
“The new automated water readers make it possible for residents to read their water consumption four times a day,” Gilbride said. “On our end, if we notice something is weird or looks very high we will send them a notification.”
The DEP claims the 500 complaints de Blasio received reflect 269 actual customers, due to duplicate listings and addresses with more than one account – each one was reviewed and confirmed that there was no problem with the automated meter readers.
Kirsten Sanchez can be reach via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (718) 742-3394