How to give the city water company a dose of its own medicine

Stephen Geis checked his bank account online and found an unexpected overdraft of $19,000 from his account. Minutes later, his wife called and told him their monthly Fort Worth water bill had arrived in the mail totaling $19,000.

What happened? Error upon error upon error.

His actual water use for the month totaled a measly $22. But he wouldn’t learn that until Watchdog Nation investigated. Geis also never learned the cause of the problem until we told him later. Water Department staffers later tried to explain it to him, but the words they used were so confusing that it made no sense.

As readers of the Dave Lieber Watchdog column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram first learned, Geis had been billed for 3.6 million gallons of water his family had supposedly used in one month. That’s enough to fill more than five Olympic-size swimming pools.

Put another way, his bill was about 863 times higher than it should have been.

Fortunately for Geis, he had overdraft protection on his account so only one check to somebody else bounced because of the city’s error. But before the drama ended last week, Geis had to pay a $35 bank charge and postage to send certified letters of complaint to the city. He also made three frustrating trips to his bank to clear the matter up and made phone calls and sent faxes to city staffers. He says he spent three hours of work time on the matter, and since he’s a lawyer, those hours don’t come cheap.

To top it off, the city demanded that he refund an additional $19,000 that he kept in his bank account for two weeks after the city reversed the charge and the bank did, too. That meant he suddenly went from negative $19,000 to positive $19,000.

City staffers demanded it back, but they wanted him to do a costly wire transfer from his bank, which he declined, or they wanted him to come to City Hall and pay in person, which he also declined. When a city staffer called him about it last week, a city official told me later, he hung up the phone. But Geis says he didn’t hang up.

He merely told the staffer he was sending another fax with his questions about the refund, and he would talk to the staffer after the fax arrived at City Hall.

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Only when the city provided him with a post office box so he could mail the $19,000 back did he do so. And don’t think he could have mailed the check to the regular address that collects payments, because that turns out to be a different postal address than the one the city wanted him to use.

In the city’s defense, a department spokeswoman explains that the $19,000 overcharge was removed from his checking account a day after he alerted the city.

But for Geis, that didn’t end his water bill nightmare.

So how did this happen?

First, I’ll share the city’s explanation given to me and to Geis, and then I’ll try to translate.

“Our Meter Services group was updating meter inventory records in our billing system to add meter warranty data. A change to the meter inventory record resulted in all previous meter readings being reset to zero, as noted in the consumption history chart on the billing statement.

“The meter reading on Nov. 9 was 4807.50. The system should have subtracted from the last meter reading of 4799.10 reflecting a total monthly consumption of 8.4 ccf. Instead, the billing system subtracted 4807.50 from zero and billed consumption at 4807.50 ccf.”

OK, here’s what that means. The water billing system messed up and didn’t compare the previous month’s usage to the next month’s usage. Instead, the automated system took all the water used from the very beginning of the meter’s operation many years ago and billed for all water used ever in that one month bill — five Olympic-size pools’ worth.

The error was compounded when the system discovered the higher-than-normal usage and a field investigator was sent to Geis’ address to look for obvious leaks. Finding none, the investigator signed off on the usage as correct, and the bill went through as an accurate one.

“Yeah, you’re right,” city spokeswoman Mary Gugliuzza said. “Someone should have caught that this was an outrageous amount for a residential billing, and that wasn’t done. But we corrected the error immediately.”

Yet there was another error: The city sent him the first page of a two-page letter. Then the city resent the letter, but only the second page arrived.

Also, Geis expected another of his checks to bounce because of a lack of funds in his account — one to the Internal Revenue Service. Fortunately, it didn’t. “That’s all I need: The big gorilla after me,” he said.

When it comes to bills, the big gorilla is all relative.

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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