KPRC 2 ‘DRAINED’ Investigation: Students pay for professor’s giant water bill

Types of leaks the city won’t cover + what you should check on your own water bill

HOUSTON – Imagine having to start a GoFundMe campaign just to pay your huge water bill. It happened to a Houston college professor. The KPRC 2 Investigates team is sharing his story as we look into Houston water billing issues to help you avoid the same pricey problem.

Robert Gagon is a theology professor at Houston Christian University. During breaks, he goes back home to his family in Pittsburgh.

Customers feeling 'DRAINED' by surprise water bills. Students pitch in to help pay for college professors' huge water bill. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

But last summer, while he was gone, the water department billed him more than $8,000 in about six weeks. When Robert Gagnon is in Houston at his small home near HCU, he doesn’t use much water, usually less than 1,000 gallons a month. He locked up and left for home in Pittsburgh last summer.

“So I thought, ‘what could go wrong?’” said Gagnon. “Well, obviously I found out what could go wrong.”

When he returned to the house at the end of August, he could hear his toilet running.

“Yeah, I thought, ‘I am going to have a slightly bigger water bill this month.’”

That was an understatement.

“I opened up the bill and I saw $5,800 and some odd dollars,” explains Gagnon. “I was stunned.”

For June, the bill showed he used 55,000 gallons. Nine days later on July 14, a second-meter read showed he used another 42,000 gallons.

“Who could possibly use that amount of water in a matter of a few weeks?” said Gagnon.

Customers feeling 'DRAINED' by surprise water bills. KPRC 2 Investigates met one college professor who was stuck with a $8,000+ water bill after a leaky toilet led to high water usage. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

High water alert letter was mailed weeks after high usage was discovered

Even though the city checked the meter twice in July, they didn’t alert him for a few hours, days, or even weeks. On Aug. 11, the city sent a high water usage letter by mail. He didn’t see the alert until he returned home on Aug. 25.

Gagnon says he would expect some other notification other than a snail mail letter.

“I can’t understand why in a day of technology, they can’t simply make a phone, can’t simply send a text or even an email,” he said.

The city says customers can choose how they want the water department to send bills and alerts. They say Gagnon chose snail mail.

“And when we have specific instructions on ways to communicate, that is the only way that we can reach out to those customers,” said Houston Public Works Director, Carol Haddock.

RESULTS: Changes to your water bill after our ‘DRAINED’ KPRC 2 Investigation

When Gagnon asked the city for some help reducing the bill, they told him to fill out a leak adjustment form.

“But they said, ‘it won’t do you any good.’ Ok, so I have to fill out a form but it won’t do any good,” said Gagnon.

City won’t cover toilet leaks for unusually high bill cut requests

That’s right-- The water department does consider reducing some unusually high bills caused by water leaks but toilet leaks are the only kind of leak not considered for a leak adjustment.

When Gagnon’s students heard he was stuck with bills totaling $8,200 they set up a GoFundMe account to help the professor. The city got the money. Gagnon’s got a message for them.

“Be willing to compromise a little bit to help others. A little bit of humanity might be helpful,” he said.

Check your water bill communication options

The takeaway here is you should check your own account to make sure alerts are sent to your email or phone and not just regular mail.

Related: The water bill changes you can expect and the rest of our ‘DRAINED’ Investigative series.

About the Authors:

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

Award-winning TV producer and content creator. My goal as a journalist is to help people. Faith and family motivate me. Running keeps me sane.