SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - She wished her April water bill topping $347 was a fool's day joke.
The "DISCONNECT NOTICE" typed in stark red letters on her bill told Teiona Kelly this was no laughing matter.
"I just freaked out. I watch my usage," she said, referring to her water service with the City of Shreveport. "This wasn't normal."
Water is a life essential. And Kelly, a working mother of two small boys, says there is absolutely no way her family can afford to go without.
"Cook, cleaning, bathing. It's just impossible without water. My oldest is potty trained. But my youngest is learning. I don't want him to see a toilet with no water."
However, Kelly also says, there is no way she could afford a water bill that jumped almost $200 higher than average.
"No more than $125 a month, $150 at the most."
"When it shot up to $350, I got on the phone right then," Kelly said of what would be her first of many calls to the City of Shreveport Water and Sewage Department.
Speaking to a customer service representative, Kelly was told the bill was not a mistake, and her account was due.
"She told me to at least make some payment, so I tired," Kelly said, showing KSLA Investigates a payment receipt below the balance owed.
Over the course of the next couple of months, Kelly said, her family worked hard to use less water, hoping that would keep the bill down.
Kelly's bill kept skyrocketing, topping $778 dollars in June, totaling just over $1,000 by the end of July.
"I know I can't afford this. Just thinking about it got me all sweating and jittery."
In June, a blue notice was hung on Kelly's door. It said her water meter was registering a leak. She immediately called her landlord, Charles Patterson.
"I've had issues before," he said. "You have to check and make sure it's not your plumbing that's the problem."
As a precaution, Patterson said, he sent his maintenance worker to Kelly's home and replaced the flapper on her toilet.
"Most of the time when there's a leak inside the home and the bill goes up, the flapper is letting water seep."
Then Patterson hired a licensed plumber to inspect the home.
"And he ensured me that I didn't have a leak."
Patterson told Kelly about the plumber's inspection and tried reassuring the stressed-out mother that the excessively high bill made no sense to him either.
"I asked her if she was washing elephants over there," Patterson said jokingly. "She didn't think that was too funny."
"I thank him for being patient with me," Kelly said of Patterson. "I know I probably irked nerves because as much as I was calling the city, I called my landlord."
In the real estate business 20 years, Patterson felt confident this time the issue was on the city's end.
"Sometimes it's on us, sometimes it's not."
Out of caution, he decided to go over to Kelly's house and check the water meter himself to see if it was registering a leak.
Only Paterson said he could not find a meter box anywhere on the property.
Kelly kept calling the Water and Sewage Department, telling them about the plumber's inspection.
"No one listened. Just kept telling me I had a leak and I had to pay."
In June and July, red cancellation notices came again in Kelly's water bill.
"I'm getting these cancellation notices, which is very awful. These are not nice."
During this time, Kelly said, she called the Water and Sewage Department, telling them about the plumber's inspection.
Then her August bill arrived in the mail.
"$1,492. So $9 from $1,500."
And with that bill, another blue notice on Kelly's door saying her water meter still was registering a leak.
Late that month, she said, a water department supervisor finally came to her house to inspect the meter. Paterson went to the home that day as well.
"Water guy found the meter. It was buried," Patterson explained. "He had to dig it out, under grass and dirt. Never seen that before."
Kelly and Paterson both told KSLA Investigates that the Water and Sewage Department supervisor informed them the meter was, in fact, malfunctioning.
"The needle was just spinning," Patterson said. "Spinning and nothing was running in the house. All the water was turned off."
According to Patterson and Kelly, the supervisor removed the bad meter from the ground and said someone with the Water and Sewage Department would be out soon to replace it.
Instead of a new meter, Kelly got disconnected. Her water turned off a couple days later when her boys' father was at home watching the kids.
"Got a call while I was at work. Water's off."
Before the disconnection, Kelly said, she was calling the city every day about her bill, frequently speaking with supervisors.
"I was told the water wouldn't be cut off. We were talking about this," Kelly said of her conversations with Water and Sewage Department employees.
She said she felt frustrated and hopeless after being told again the bill needed to be paid because her water meter registered a leak.
"Eventually, I called KSLA."
When KSLA Investigates heard from Kelly, we immediately phoned her landlord, Patterson, who said Kelly was a good tenant and her story entirely true.
Our next contact was with the City of Shreveport We reached out to two officials, Africa Price, of the Mayor's office, who works as Public Relations and Communications Director, and Barbara Featherston, the Water and Sewage Department director.
In a detailed email, which you can read here, KSLA Investigates shared what we knew, explaining to these officials our concerns about two young children living without water.
Within a couple hours, Featherston called informing KSLA Investigates that the city was restoring Kelly's service and installing a new meter that same day.
Featherston also said the nearly $1,500 water bill was due to a leak on Kelly's end of the line, refusing to rule out the possibility that Kelly might lose water again soon if she didn't pay.
"What am I making a payment for when I know this isn't right," said an upset Kelly.
"My meter was under dirt and grass And I explained that to the representative that I called. She told me they have special instruments that would read my meter and it being under dirt and grass, that wasn't a factor."
The following week, KSLA Investigates visited Kelly at her home in Shreveport's Mooretown neighborhood.
Inside the yellow brick bungalow, Kelly sat at the kitchen table after a long day at work. Her water bills, notices and payment receipts laid out neatly for inspection.
On every bill since April, there is a column showing Kelly's average daily water use. According to those statements, her household was using hundreds of gallons of water a day. One showed usage exceeding more than 1,500 gallons a day on average.
"At this point, I don't even have a washer, and I don't have a pool," Kelly said. "What could be pulling this much water?"
"The faucet would pretty much have to be open nonstop," said Patterson, Kelly's landlord.
He also agreed to sit down with KSLA Investigates.
"I have a set of apartments close to downtown with four units in it," Patterson said. "And all four of those bills have never been over $250.""
Patterson promised to work with Kelly and the city to solve the problem.
Meanwhile, city officials haven't granted our request for an interview.
Through an email, Price said the Water and Sewage Department installed a new meter at Kelly's home Aug. 25 "out of an abundance of caution."
Price wrote further "we do not know if she has had the necessary repairs done on her end."
Patterson insists there are no repairs needed at the home.
Kelly is at a loss.
"They've been out a total of out three times since April to read the meter. Now they replaced it," she said.
"Which, from my understanding, replacing the meter meant nothing was wrong on my end. They're not explaining none of those things to me."
"I'll be without water," Kelly said of her inability to pay the balance now due on her account. "And that's sad to say because I don't know what I will do."
As it turns out, Kelly's water woes may not be an isolated problem.
KSLA investigates is receiving calls and messages from viewers and readers complaining of similar problems.
One woman reports that her 90-year-old mother was charged $600 on her most recent water bill and that, over the past four months, she paid more than $568 to keep the water on.
A single mother in Shreveport told KSLA Investigates that her bill jumped $500 over the summer and that she now owes $901.
To determine whether this is a widespread problem in the City of Shreveport, KSLA Investigates requested city records indicating the number of water customers complaining about defective meters, plus the number of meters replaced by the Water and Sewage Department the past two years.
The City asked KSLA Investigates for an extension of the deadline to reply to our request under the Louisiana Public Records Act.
Meantime, as we continue our investigation, if you, a family member or friend is experiencing unexpectedly high water bills and you believe a faulty meter may be the cause, please contact KSLA Investigates.