Customer figures out how to win dispute with water department

You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip, and, usually, you can’t convince your municipal water company that its meters are bad. Water departments are notoriously stubborn. Their culture is built around the idea that water meters are supposed to be about 99 percent accurate.

But what about the other 1 percent?

Usually, it’s a duel between homeowner and water department. The homeowner swears on a stack of skyrocketing water bills that the family didn’t use nearly that much water. The water department counters that there must be a leak.

Homeowner hires a plumber. That bill is often very costly, whether there’s a leak or not.

How do you get a water department to listen? As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, we met someone who figured it out. Carolyn Fobes could teach a class on how to fight — no, make that convince — city hall. She’s a four-time cancer survivor who says: “I don’t give up easily. I play to win.” These days, that’s an art all its own.

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Her first student could be Letha Wood of Fort Worth, Texas, who told me last week how her monthly water bill jumped from its usual $50 to $104, then to $119, $176, $288 and $329. She and her husband didn’t figure out until months too late that they had a leak.

The plumbing repair job cost $2,200. Fort Worth reimbursed the couple some $180 under its leak adjustment policy. (The city credits an account for 50 percent of the excess water use for up to two months based on historical usage.)

That was a difficult experience for Wood and her husband, both almost 90 years old.

Fobes can relate. Her bill jumped from $66 to $194 in one month. Of course, she was told that she had a leak, too.

“After paying $800 to a national plumbing company, we were told we had no leak,” she recalls.

“We paid the water bill, even though we believed it to be erroneous.”

Then her bill spiked again from one month to the next — $61 to $195. Guess what the water department told her?

This time, she visited the water department “in person,” she says. She requested a bill adjustment. Denied.

She put her request in writing and was again denied. She sent her protest to the mayor and public works director, too. Since the same thing had happened twice, she reasoned that either the equipment was faulty or her meter was misread.

Two months later, she received a robo-phone call announcing that her water was going to be turned off because she hadn’t made her entire payment.

She called the city manager’s office and requested a meeting. She was referred to North Richland Hills Assistant City Manager Karen Bostic who — wait for it — took her seriously.

Bostic recalls what happened:

“She did a lot to help herself. She continued paying her current bill. … She didn’t get angry and say, ‘I’m not paying a dime.’

“She wasn’t going to play the game of ‘Well, if I can’t get my way, I’m just going to stop paying all my bills,’ which I’ve seen happen before.

“It’s easier to work with someone when you know there’s no game playing. A number of people run into financial trouble and instead of calling the water department, they just stop paying bills. They get on the cutoff list, and their water is cut off. If they would just call when they start having financial problems, 99 percent of the time we’re willing to work with them.”

The city allows for adjustments when there is evidence of a leak and receipts can prove that repairs were made. In Fobes’ case, nobody knows what happened.

That didn’t stop her. Bostic said she was impressed by Fobes’ tone: “She was very reasonable and logical. She had all her information at hand. She wasn’t argumentative. It’s tough to work with someone when they try to strongarm you as soon as you get on the phone. I’ve had people who don’t have all their ducks in a row.”

Good water metaphor. That’s how Fobes originally got my attention. She wrote me: “I’m getting hosed.”

Her clear presentation of her problem is impressive. “I was a journalism major in college,” she says, “but have spent most of my life in accounting. Both professions require research and organization skills.”

Don’t forget true grit. Fobes has that — and a victory. “My tenacity has paid off,” she says.

Bostic totaled Fobes’ water usage for six years, deducted the highest and lowest, calculated a four-year average, then deducted what had already been paid. (Kids, see why math is important?)

The city cut almost $200 from her bill, though officials still don’t know what caused the spikes. Bostic called them “very odd.”

“All is right with the world,” Fobes says.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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