KPRC 2 Investigates: 95 year-old viewer fights back against water bill overcharge

95 year-old viewer fights back against water bill overcharge

We are continuing to receive calls and emails from some of you who are worried about how you are going to pay unusually high water bills that you don’t think you owe.

The City of Houston has raised rates but customers are questioning the accuracy of the meter readings. KPRC 2 Investigates has one man’s story that puts the problem into perspective.

Ray Dittmar knows how much water he uses, and it’s not that much

Ray Dittmar, 95, is a widower. He’s lived in this Timbergrove home for the last 45 years -- long enough to know he uses on average 15 gallons of water a day. That’s about 450 gallons or about $30-something a month. Until this past July when the meter reading showed he used 111,000 gallons. The bill was huge.

“It’s $2,017.55,” said Dittmar. “I was shocked, to say the least.”

But Dittmar paid it and applied for an unusually large bill adjustment. The city has 90 days to review and approve or deny those requests. But the very next month, Dittmar’s bill showed he used another 14,000 gallons. The next month the city says he used another 10,000 gallons. That got Ray Dittmar moving.

“I just knew I hadn’t used that much water, so I went out and checked the water meter myself,” Dittmar explains.

On Oct. 28, when we checked the meter it read 806,930 gallons. But the city billed Dittmar based on an estimated meter reading of 807,000 all the way back on Sept. 1. And the bills kept coming. On Oct. 1, the city estimated that his meter read 817,000 gallons, charging him another $180.

KPRC 2 Investigates high water bills. (Copyright 2020 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“Personally, I think the water department has financial problems,” said Dittmar. “I think now they’re trying to remedy that by taking advantage of people like me.”

What happens if the City of Houston overcharges you on the water bill?

The City’s Public Works ordinance says that if it accidentally overcharges by more than six times what you usually pay for water, and you pay the bill, it will only give you that money back in the form of a credit on future bills unless you specifically ask for a refund. And even then, the process is slow and confusing. (You may remember, we introduced you to another KPRC 2 viewer who received an $8,500 water bill earlier this year.)

When we reached out to the city in November, the water department finally agreed to refund Dittmar that $2,017 he paid back in August. But, citing privacy laws, they wouldn’t explain what happened that caused such large, inaccurate bills.

A spokesperson wrote us:

While Dittmar was happy to get his money back, he is also unclear as to how his readings got so out of whack. And until he trusts that they are accurate, he will continue checking his meter himself.

KPRC 2 Investigates water bill mistakes. (Copyright 2020 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

What to do if you suspect a water bill mistake

There’s a whole lot of information about your rights when it comes to water billing errors in the City of Houston Code of Ordinances. It’s information the Water Department doesn’t readily give up. We are sharing that information with you in case you have a billing error or question about your bill.

According to the City of Houston Code of Ordinances, Chapter 47, article II, Division 1, Sec. 47-65. - Billing errors-In general:

- “If the department commits a billing error, it shall correct the customer’s bill as soon as it discovers the incorrect billing. If the incorrect billing is an overcharge that is more than six times the customer’s average bill, the department shall refund the overcharge to the customer at the request of the customer. Provided, however, if the customer can show extreme economic hardship to the utility official, the department shall refund the overcharge to the customer notwithstanding the amount of the overcharge. The utility official shall determine whether extreme economic hardship exists. In cases where the overcharge is not refunded, the department shall credit the customer’s account the amount of the overcharge to be applied to the charges thereafter accruing.”

- If the city inaccurately bills you for water and charges you too little, it can only go back two years to collect water you actually used (For example, if they discover your meter hasn’t been registering any water usage for years, they can repair your meter, then get your average usage over several months to determine what you owe for the previous two years that you were not billed for water consumption).

- If the city determines there was fraud or theft of city water or sewer service, the city could bill retroactively to when the fraud or theft began.

Can I dispute my City of Houston water bill?

  • Customers have the right to request an administrative review to dispute bills. The customer can submit evidence like reports from plumbers, engineers, or other relevant sources; and relevant photographs and other tangible information, whether provided by the city or the customer. The customer has 90 days from the date of the first bill that is disputed to request an administrative review or hearing in writing.
  • If you are not happy with the results of the review, you may request an administrative hearing within 10 days of the date of the customer’s notification of the administrative review outcome. You have the right to be represented by counsel or any other agent at said hearing and shall notify the city at least 10 business days prior to the hearing of such representation.
  • Termination of service is suspended by a request for an administrative hearing unless the service was terminated prior to the customer’s request for the hearing, the customer closes or transfers his account to a new address, the customer fails to pay charges, not in dispute or the customer has prevented the city from obtaining meter readings within the last 60 days.

Not happy with the administrative review hearing? Try this.

There is a Water Adjustment Board made up of three members appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council. They each serve a term of three years, unless removed earlier by the mayor.

At least one member of the board shall hold or have held a journeyman plumber’s license and shall have been eligible in the past five years to take the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners’ master plumber examination.

Within 10 days following the decision of the hearing officer, you may request that the decision be reviewed by the Water Adjustment Board. The review will be based exclusively on the record of the hearing; no additional evidence or information shall be considered. The board may uphold, reverse or modify the decision of the hearing officer in conformance with the provisions of this Code.

Want your water meter tested? Here’s what you need to know

KPRC 2 Investigates water bill overcharges. What you can do if you suspect your water bill is wrong. (Copyright 2020 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Sec. 47-73 of the City of Houston Code of Ordinances, says:

- If you question the accuracy of a city water meter, you can request that it be tested in writing to the department.

- You can request to be present when your meter is removed and tested.

- You can invite an independent expert at your own expense to observe the removal and testing; but you have to let the city know the expert’s name and area of expertise in advance in writing

- All meters must meet the accuracy-test guidelines of the American Water Works Association. The department shall adjust customer bills for up to 24 months on the basis of the results of tests performed by the department. If the meter or register is defective, the department shall repair or replace it. If a meter is damaged so that it cannot be tested, the customer’s account may be adjusted for up to 24 months based on the average usage. Any adjustment in the bill to the city’s advantage associated with a water meter shall be payable by the customer prorated over future billings equal to the number of past billings for which the adjustment was accrued; provided, however, in an instance where the utility official finds that such a payment plan would constitute extreme economic hardship, based on a determination that the customer’s monthly household income meets the criteria established in section 36-62(2)b of this Code, the utility official may extend the payment plan over additional billings as the official may deem appropriate.

- The customer must pay to have the meter tested IF

- The meter is within the manufacturer’s warranty period, or

- If the department has tested the meter within the previous 12 months.

- If the department re-reads a meter at the customer’s request, and the reading verifies that the department’s original reading was correct (equal to or greater than the prior reading), the department shall charge the customer the fee stated for in this provision in the city fee schedule. Provided, however, that exempt senior customers, disabled veterans, and persons with disabilities are exempt from this fee.

When can you request an adjustment to your water bill?

KPRC 2 Investigates huge water bill from the City of Houston. (Copyright 2020 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Adjustment of the bill as a result of a defect in the customer’s line

“Any residential, commercial, multifamily or outdoor customer of the city may request an adjustment of any water bill showing excess usage due to a loss of water through an excusable defect in the customer’s water line for a period not to exceed three consecutive months.”

To apply for the adjustment, the customer must file a sworn written application or an application that conforms to minimum state law requirements for unsworn declarations with the director within six months of the repair of the excusable defect. Customers may apply for no more than two such adjustments in any 12-month period for any one account.

Leak adjustment

To qualify for a “Leak Balance Remaining” adjustment, the LBR must be greater than $2,000. For elderly customers who meet the eligibility criteria for elderly residents in section 36-62 (1) of this Code, the LBR must be greater than $250. Customers requesting an LBR adjustment shall submit an LBR adjustment application on a form prescribed by the director.

Adjustment of an unusually large bill

“Any single-family residential customer who receives a water bill for any given month that is greater than 200 percent of the average usage of the customer, the customer may request an adjustment of the bill in the manner provided in this section. Provided, that the customer must make an application within six months of receipt of such bill and only one such monthly bill out of any 12 consecutive monthly bills may be adjusted under this section.”

Exceptional circumstances adjustment

Any billed amount in excess of five times the average monthly bill of a commercial, residential or not-for-profit account may be reduced by up to $4,000 for one occurrence that does not exceed a two-month timeframe. To receive this credit, the following criteria will be used:(1)The usage must exceed the customer’s average monthly usage by at least five times; and(2)Based on an investigation conducted by the department as described in section 47-75 of this Code, the evidence clearly establishes that such increased usage was not the result of the customer’s failure to take action reasonably calculated to address the problem.(b)A customer may receive no more than one exceptional circumstances adjustment in a 24-month period.

About the Author:

Passionate consumer advocate, mom of 3, addicted to coffee, hairspray and pastries.