by Jim Donovan
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – It comes as a big and unwelcome surprise. Some Philadelphia water customers are being hit with huge bills that include new charges that date back years! As 3 On Your Side Consumer Reporter Jim Donovan finds, thousands of customers are affected and if they don’t take action, their water service may be cut off.
Tom Ciasullo has lived in his South Philly home for over 50 years. But he never before got a water bill like one he received recently. He says, “I got a bill in excess of $2,100 dollars!”
Tom has always paid on time. In fact he says, “Never missed a bill, ever.” But several months ago he received a letter saying that his water meter readings were showing zero usage. He didn’t realize it, but for years he was only being billed for his monthly service and storm water charges, and not for the water he was actually using. The Philadelphia Water Department refers to this as a “zero read”.
According to Laura Copeland of the Philadelphia Water Department, “There’s three instances where a customer may get a zero read – a vacant property, it’s theft of service, or there may be a problem with the meter itself.”
In Tom’s case the automatic meter reading system was malfunctioning. While his water meter was accurately registering the water used, it wasn’t relaying that information to an attached box which transmits wirelessly to vans collecting billing data .
Tom is not alone. Last summer the Water Department sent out letters to over 15,000 residential customers who were getting zero readings for usage. Copeland says, “It’s our responsibility to provide accurate bills but it’s also the customers responsibility to review their bills for accuracy.”
Water bills that in recent years now include a bar chart to indicate usage. No bars means no water is being billed. In fact Tom’s last accurate water usage reading was in March of 2007! He says, “Why in the world would they let it go this long.”
3 On Your Side has learned that the delay in customer notification has prompted the Water Department to institute what they’re calling a “shared responsibility policy”. As part of that policy customers that have been receiving zero usage readings will be required to fully pay for the water they’ve used in the last 12 months but Copeland says “Any prior years they would only be responsible for 50% of that usage.”
In Tom’s case that means $889 of his bill will be dropped. But he’s still on the hook for the rest of the money owed. He only wishes he knew about the problem sooner. He says, “Nobody ever gave me notice before that there was something wrong.”
The Philadelphia Water Department says this past fall a new system was put in place to alert customers when they get zero usage readings four months in a row. They say customers facing big bills as result of this delayed notification can arrange to pay the balance off over time, up to five years or more.
While 15,000 customers were sent letters related to zero usage readings, only about a third of those customers have responded. The Water Department says that customers that continue to ignore the notifications risk having their water service turned off in the upcoming weeks and months.