Houston – KPRC 2 Investigates has received a flood of complaints against the city of Houston water department. Customers are calling us when they receive abnormally high, astronomical bills that they believe must be the result of a mistake or billing error. They say their calls and emails to the city go unanswered or drag on for months without resolution.
Ray Dittmar, a 95-year-old customer, received a bill for $2,017, showing he had used 111,000 gallons of water in one month, instead of his usual 450 gallons.
“I was shocked, to say the least,” the widower told KPRC 2 Investigates.
“I can not pay $8,500. I don’t know a lot of people that can,” said Sandi Meyer, about the outrageous, unexplained bill she received.
Patsy Henry, 74, cried and was worried about how she was going to pay the $5,482.08 city of Houston water bill she received.
No communication from the city of Houston about high water bill
Debbie Shelton tried to reach someone with the water department about the large amounts it deducted from her bank account, $4627.01 in November 2021 and another $2,117.21 the following month. The water account for the 1,800 square foot home she owns in the energy corridor is set on auto-pay.
“I tried to call, and of course, you can’t get through, or you get on hold for 45 minutes. I’ve never talked to anybody,” Shelton said.
She emailed the customer service address for water bills on the city of Houston website twice. After several weeks passed with no response, she emailed KPRC 2 Investigates.
“There’s no system in place for this whatsoever. It just goes out into space,” Shelton said. “And I guess they just assume that, you know, I may just be put aside as somebody who’s already got the money so they’ll deal with it later.”
Former Houston Public Works Director Dan Krueger said the process should be clear, but this is where customers are getting stuck waiting on hold with no returned emails. When we stopped by the city’s water customer service office on Leeland, we found the doors locked. A security guard told us the office was closed to the public three years ago.
We couldn’t even get through to anyone in charge for this story.
A city spokesperson told KPRC 2 Investigates “Customer Account Services Director Sherri Winslow has scheduling conflicts and will be unavailable for an interview.”
Exactly 10,611 Houston water customers asked the city for an adjustment to their high water bills last year.
The city approved less than half - 5,072.
Most people think there’s no way they’ve used all that water, so where’s it all going?
If you receive an unusually high water bill from the city of Houston or a municipal utility district (MUD), the first thing you should do is read your own water meter to see if it matches what is on your bill.
If the numbers on your unusually high water bill match the numbers on your water meter, next you should check your home for leaks by following these steps.
- Turn off all the water in your home. Just make sure nothing is running.
- Then go look at your water meter. There’s a little red star dial on your meter. It should not be moving at all if there is no water running. If it is turning, even slightly, one of your toilets might be leaking. This is one of the most common types of plumbing leaks in homes.
How to check your toilet for a water leak
- Turn off the water to your toilets at the angle stops, usually located behind your toilet. When you have turned all of them off, go outside and check your meter again.
- If the red dial has stopped moving, that means one of your toilets is leaking. You can then turn the angle stops back on one at a time, checking the red dial for movement each time to determine which toilet is leaking.
- Fixing a toilet leak is usually as easy as replacing the flush valve inside your toilet’s tank. You can buy a new flush valve for about $20 at any hardware store.
If the red dial is spinning even after all of the water (including water to the toilets) is shut off, that means there is a leak somewhere in your home that may take a professional to find.
American Leak Detection helped us with our story. They check homes for leaks for a fee.
Before you pay a plumber to check for water issues
- Call Houston Public Works to tell them there is a problem with your bill. (832) 394-BILL (2455) Monday - Friday, 8:00AM - 5:00PM
- You can also email them at Customer.Service@houstontx.gov or have a live chat with a city representative: https://www.houstonwaterbills.houstontx.gov/ProdDP/Default/Default
- Always call your city council representative if you don’t feel you’re getting a fair shake.
Your water bill rights
In reviewing the City’s Code of Ordinances, we discovered:
- You can request that the city test your meter. And you can ask to be there when they do it. You must submit your request in writing to the department.
- Then you can request an administrative review of the bills you’re disputing. This is where you would submit any evidence you have, like a plumber’s report- that shows no sign of leaks. You must make this request within 90 days if the water and wastewater charges appear on your water bill. The administrative review process takes an average of 30 days to complete.
- Not happy with that outcome? Then you have 10 days to request an administrative review hearing. And as soon as you request this, the city can not cut off your water until the dispute is resolved. An administrative hearing can take up to 60 days to be completed. The administrative hearing is conducted by an independent hearing examiner.
- Accountholders not in agreement with the administrative hearing outcome have 10 days to request a water adjustment board review. The water adjustment board is an independent panel appointed by the Mayor and approved by City Council based on City Code 47-75.2. The water adjustment board review is the third and final step in the water and wastewater appeals process. The water adjustment board is supposed to meet at least once a quarter to review the hearing examiner’s decisions and all documentation provided in the administrative hearing. The decisions of the board are final and they may not consider any additional information that was not provided by either the account holder or the City, prior to the hearing being closed.
We checked. Even though the water adjustment board is supposed to meet every quarter, the board’s last meeting was on August 6, 2021. A Public Works spokesperson told us the boards’ next hearing will be March 25, 2022. Since 2019, the board has only heard 89 cases. We spoke with three accountholders who appeared before the board in August 2021. All of them said they felt like the process was a waste of time. None of their bills were lowered.
What happens if the City of Houston overcharges you on your 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.
Water Rates Continue to Rise
On the heels of the passage of a 78% increase in water rates over the next five years, Kreuger says it’s not a good look for Houston.
“Why do we need to have to raise rates this much now?” He asked. “And is this really fair and reasonable for the public?”
The next scheduled increase in Houston water rates is in April.
You can ask the city to adjust or lower your water bill
There are three circumstances under which the city of Houston may lower the amount of your water bill.
Leak Adjustment: Customers who have suffered and repaired a leak may apply for an adjustment of up to three consecutive bills. Toilet leaks are not covered. You can get two of these every year.
Exceptional circumstances adjustment: Any residential or commercial customer whose bill is inexplicably more than 500% greater than average usage can apply for an exceptional circumstances adjustment. You can only get one of these every 24 months.
Unusually large bill adjustment: City of Houston Code of Ordinance, Section 47-75, allows a single-family residential customer one credit adjustment during a twelve-month period for an unusually large bill. The credit allowed is for unexplained usage over 200% of average usage for the Water/Wastewater account. You can only get one unusually large bill adjustment every year.