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Water Wars

Big bills leave some customers out to dry

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Marla Lendor knew something was wrong when she got a water bill for over $100. Her bill usually ranged in the $30 range, and her family's water usage hadn't changed. She paid the bill and made efforts to conserve.

She stopped using the dishwasher and watched her family's dirty laundry pile up to a small mountain, budgeting for only one wash a month. Sanitation took a backseat to conservation in other areas. "I'm kind of embarrassed to say it but instead of taking a bath every day, we were going every other day," confesses Lendor.

Then she got a bill for $360.

She called the city of Charlotte to complain. They told her it could be a running toilet or a leak in the pipes under the property. In both matters the consumer is financially liable.

"The commode will rob you blind," says City of Charlotte customer service manager Barry Beamer. If the flapper doesn't line up, the invisible thief can lose you six gallons a minute. "It's fortunate or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it, there's no damage caused by a toilet leak. You're not going to see a puddle. It just goes right down the drain." Her landlord Brett Furniss of BDF Reality sent a plumber to her house on two occasions, but the plumber didn't find anything out of the ordinary.

Then she got a bill for $554.

The city measures water in units of 100 cubic feet (designated 1 Ccf), which hold 768 gallons. According to the meter, Lendor and her family used 64 Ccf's or 49,152 gallons. Had Lendor left her sink on for all 24 hours a day, it would have taken 17 days to reach that many gallons. She could have taken a 13-day shower or filled a large backyard pool two and a half times. When she called the City of Charlotte again, the customer representative told her that the meter can sometimes spike. Lendor was beside herself. "I'm just expected to pay this because the meter had a bad day? Maybe you could question it if I had teenagers. My kids are one and two years old. They aren't running around here flushing toilets. We don't have a swimming pool."

Questions about billing are raised all the time by customers, Beamer says. "If it were uncommon, we wouldn't need a billing center." But as far as meter error goes, the meters will slow down or stop counting water if they err, not overcharge.

Lendor asked around her North Charlotte neighborhood to see if her problem was unique. One of her neighbors had recently discovered a construction company had stolen hundreds of dollars of water from an outside faucet. There were two houses being built behind Lendor's house. But she was told if water pirating was the case, she was still responsible for any water that ran through her meter.

The City of Charlotte gave her a date when they would turn off the water. She wasn't going to pay it, but without an appeal process, Lendor, who has two small children and couldn't live safely without water, had no choice. If the problem isn't righted on the next billing cycle, Lendor says she'll consider moving.

Duke Power doesn't have a formal appeal process either. says spokesperson Elizabeth Bennett, but she noted that they also don't have problems with faulty meter readings. ParkIt!, an independent company that handles the city's 46,000 yearly parking tickets, has an appeal process that is rather generous to the complainant. Fifty-one percent of the 3,684 people who filed appeals in 2005 had their tickets thrown out. No photo evidence is needed, and the whole process can be completed in under a minute.

Unlike parking tickets in which a penalty is set at an arbitrary value, the money paid for water goes directly to fund that service -- the electricity and pumping costs to withdraw the water from the river, the chemicals used to treat it, maintaining distribution lines. If Lendor and others didn't pay the bill, that cost would be diffused among other customers. Charlotte offers one of the lowest rates on water in the Southeast, City of Charlotte conservation coordinator Maeneen Klein points out, almost half as much as Asheville, Chapel Hill, and Charleston charge for a cubic foot.

Lendor's landlord Brett Furniss had his own problem with the water company. In a 13-day time span Furniss got a $496 bill for a property in the Druid Hills neighborhood. The bill was outrageous to Furniss, considering the property was vacant. Unless there were some thirsty ghosts haunting the house, it didn't make sense.

The explanations offered by the City of Charlotte were not much more reasonable than the thirsty ghost theory. They told Furniss it could be a running toilet or water pirates. "There is no judge or jury on this," says Furniss. "Can I absolutely prove that 24 hours a day no one came up to my house and started filling up water trucks? No, I can't prove that. I mean can they prove that someone did? No."

Beamer acknowledges that large bills on vacant properties aren't abnormal. He hears customers tell him quite frequently that a plumber found nothing wrong with a property but running toilets can be mercurial, and plumbers often are checking while they are functioning normally. Most homes have valves on their properties that can shut the water off, and Beamer recommends that landlords consider this when they aren't showing a house. Due to unpredictable schedules, though, Furniss says this would be a rather large hassle.

"If it goes through the meter, it's somewhere on their property, whether it goes into their house or into the ground or into a hole, but it goes somewhere," says Klein. "Most of the times we can eliminate possibilities and give them answers. But there are instances where, unless the customer is willing to dig up his yard and inspect the line into his house, that it's tough to find a definitive answer."

In those cases, it's pay or pay.

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