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Detroit water bill battle: What can you do?

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DETROIT – Detroit resident Gloria Ellerson Clark has never been so frustrated with the city she calls home.

"I was angry. I was very angry. I couldn't understand that. How could my bill jump that?" she told Ruth to the Rescue. 

Money is tight for Clark, who also cares for her ailing husband in their home on Crocuslawn Street.

Clark said she's struggled to pay her water bill in the past, but things got worse in October when her water usage suddenly skyrocketed. 

"We went from 2,900 gallons of water to 29,000 gallons of water," she said.

Ruth to the Rescue reviewed Clark's bills from the last six months and confirmed that -- from October to December -- her water usage jumped from more than 23,000 gallons of water to 29,000 gallons. In 2013, those numbers were under 4,000 gallons.

Only Clark, her husband a their cat live in the home. So how did her usage spike so dramatically?

"I made the joke with the water company, you mean to tell me when we leave the cat turns on all the faucets in the house?" Clark said.

Clark said she had someone check her home for leaks, and they didn't find any. She contested the charges with the water department, but couldn't get anywhere. In addition, she said the customer service she received was lacking.

"I didn't like the way they talked to me. I didn't like the way they handled business," Clark said.

City responds 

Detroit's Chief Operating Officer Gary Brown said customer service improvements are on the way.

"There's a new level of customer service that's going to be rolled out. There are going to be more people involved in the process," Brown said.

The upgraded customer service will arrive as part of the newly established Great Lakes Water Authority.

"We're are doing to be training account managers to meet with and stay in contact with people," Brown said.  

Other than questions about customer service, Clark still wanted to know how her bill could have climbed so much. She received a new meter with Automated Meter Reading (AMR) on Dec. 18. Then, her readings suddenly started sinking. Her usage was just above 2,200 gallons in January, February, and March.

The water department told Ruth to the Rescue it's unable to speculate on why Clark's bills are so inconsistent. It says her old meter, installed in 2008, was also an AMR meter. The department said a review back to 2011 shows other peaks and valleys. It stands by the readings.

"We can track that meter by the hour, by the day, by the week, by the month," Brown said.  

Fighting Back 

What can customers do? The first step is to be watchful for possible leaks in your home or toilers that run. Even if you don't know about the problem, you will be charged if you're wasting water in your home.

"I've had the same issue at my home," said Brown. "In 90 percent of the cases, there is a water leak somewhere."

But, when customers like Clark can't find a leak, they are left to appeal the problem to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Customers have complained about the appeals system. Brown says that process is going to be taken out of the hands of the water department.

"Shortly we're going to come up with a program in which our administrative hearings court will be handling and mediating all of the disputes," Brown said. Those changes will come with the new Great Lakes Water Authority in July.

As Clark, she's still not happy about the money she was forced to pay. She says those high bills made her face some difficult choices. Luckily, she was able to turn to a social service agency. Clark received some assistance from the folks at PACE, Southeast Michigan. That organization was able to obtain a grant that helped Clark avoid a shut off.

Still, this long-time Detroiter worries about suddenly seeing a high bill again. She takes drastic steps, like buying bottled water and using water very sparingly around the house for household chores. It's not the way she wants to spend her "Golden Years" in the Motor City.

"I have to make a choice about paying my bills, how are we going to eat. and, I can't pay that big old water bill," Clark said.

Appeals Process

Currently, the appeals process is run through the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. These are some highlights from that process. As noted above, that process will change sometime in July. Ruth to the Rescue will bring you more information about the new process as it becomes available.

These are just the highlights of the process, if you are engaged in a dispute, please ask the Department for complete rules and regulations, as they are required to provide that information.

  • It is the customer's responsibility to inform the utility of any billing dispute. A customer who's billed monthly has 28 days to file a dispute after the billing date. A customer who is billed quarterly has 42 days after the billing date.
  • You can request that the meter be tested and for someone to examine plumbing fixtures and pipes if necessary. You can also get an independent test, at your expense.
  • The Department will advise the customer of the results and must notify them they can request a hearing within 10 days if the results are disputed.
  • If the customer does not request a hearing within 10 days, the DWSW can exercise its rights, including a possible termination of service for nonpayment.
  • A customer who requests a hearing must still pay all bills not in dispute.