Thursday, July 24, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Help Desk: Water Torture

City Howl is a Web site that allows citizens to post their raves or rants about city services. Every Wednesday, we publish highlights of our investigations iinto some of these problems. In this installation, Kirstin Lindermayer helps a Philadelphia woman get rid of an erroneous $2,500 water bill.

Help Desk: Water Torture

City Howl is a Web site that allows citizens to post their raves or rants about city services. Every Wednesday, we publish highlights of our investigations iinto some of these problems. In this installation, Kirstin Lindermayer helps a Philadelphia woman get rid of an erroneous $2,500 water bill.

The nightmare

Jessica DiPaolo bought her Fairmount house in September. When she started getting her water bills, she paid them on time, but noticed that they were "estimated" bills. Curious, she thought she was doing the right thing when she called the Water Revenue Bureau, the collection arm of the Water Department.

It was the wrong thing, at least from the standpoint of her stress level. . . because soon after, she got a new bill for $2,500, and threats that her water would be shut off.

Turns out her bills had been estimated because no water meter was hooked up. The department remedied that, and several weeks after the installation, DiPaolo received her monthly water bill, which now included "current charges" of $2,512.14 dating to 2002, the last time the old meter had been read.

When she bought the house, her title company had looked into any outstanding utility debts and issued a check to the bureau for $111.96 owed at the time of settlement. She immediately contacted her title company about the $2,500 bill.

"I wanted to make sure it wasn't something I had missed at settlement," she said.

The Water Revenue Bureau responded to DiPaolo's inquiry by letter in late January, explaining that her bill was indeed correct.

The letter said "the final reading is accurate and no adjustment is warranted."

The letter also explained that DiPaolo could appeal the bureau's decision.

At the end of January, DiPaolo received a separate bill from the Water Revenue Bureau for approximately $200 for "replacing missing meter." She did some digging around in the Philadelphia Water Department's regulations and discovered Section 401.2, which states that "The meter is the property of the City. . . and the City undertakes to test, maintain, repair and replace the meter."

That meant that DiPaolo didn't owe the city any money for her new meter.

She began calling the Water Department.

"It was probably 10 or 12 people that I had to speak with. I had to back-end the system a little because talking to customer service didn't get me anywhere," DiPaolo said.

Eventually, she got the $200 charge removed from her account. But the rest of her ordeal wasn't over.

In January and February, DiPaolo continued to receive monthly bills with balances of at least $2,500. She paid her current charges (usually $35 or $40), but refused to pay the back bills.

On Feb. 24, she submitted an appeal to the bureau and began waiting. In the meantime, she made calls to Councilman Darrell Clarke's office.

No one could help. About the beginning of March, DiPaolo received the first notice that her water service would be shut off on or after April 8 unless she made a payment.

"I don't have $3,000," DiPaolo said two weeks ago.

In mid-March, she finally received an acknowledgment of her appeal from the city's Tax Review Board, explaining that she would be notified soon about the time and place of her public hearing.

Right after she contacted City Howl, she received a second shutoff notice from the bureau. And she started wondering if she needed to hire a lawyer.

What we did

We contacted Laura Copeland, spokeswoman for the Water Department, about DiPaolo's predicament.

After speaking with folks over at the Water Revenue Bureau, Copeland delivered some good news: DiPaolo wasn't going to have to pay for eight years of water that she didn't use.

"They have stopped the shutoff activity," Copeland said. "The account will be adjusted to the date of her title. Usage amounts will be adjusted from the date the new meter was installed, and [the bureau] will waive any penalty that has been charged."

The bureau has separate processes for account analysis and for appeals, Copeland explained.

The first process had already been completed for DiPaolo's account, and the old meter reading was found to be accurate.

"But another process needed to happen to get this resolved, and it didn't get to this point yet," Copeland said.

We also spoke with Revenue Commissioner Keith Richardson, whose department includes the Water Revenue Bureau, and he confirmed that DiPaolo's account would be cleared of back charges and that her water won't be shut off.

The bureau may have to write off the money, explained Richardson, because three or four people have owned the Fairmount rowhouse since 2004, making it difficult to track them down.

What's next

The bureau will be contacting DiPaolo with a letter and an adjusted bill in the next few days, Copeland said.

"It was an incredibly stressful situation," DiPaolo said of the months-long ordeal. "This is probably one of the hardest organizations I've ever dealt with. You can't get through. I got five or six different responses from people, which makes you not trust anything you're hearing."

Had she felt that the bureau's customer-service representatives were knowledgeable about her situation, DiPaolo might not have become as frustrated.

And had the bill been lower, DiPaolo might actually have broken down and paid it just to get the situation resolved. But she's glad she stuck it out and spent countless hours advocating for herself. 

Have a problem getting services from a city department, or an idea for a more effective way to get things done? Let us know about it at www.thecityhowl.com, or write:

City Howl, c/o the Daily News,
400 N. Broad St., Phila., Pa. 19130.

About this blog
Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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