Woman struggles to pay her mother's high water bill

High water bills: City seems unwilling to see how widespread problem is
Published: Oct. 4, 2017 at 9:51 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 4, 2017 at 9:53 PM CDT
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SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - Walking over to a table on which her 90-year-old mother's sewing machine sits, Wanda Simpson starts thumbing through a stack of water bills that are stapled together.

"It's a disconnect notice," she said, looking at her mother Sadie Green's September bill. "That's the very first time she's ever had anything like this."

That notice, threatening to shut off the water at Green's home, came with charges of more than $340 for the previous month's water use.

Simpson said her mother's account has been fluctuating wildly for several months now, seeing bills come in around $120 one month, dropping to just under $75 the next, before spiking well above $300 the following month.

"I just don't know what to do. I really don't," Simpson said.

This spring, when Simpson first noticed her mother's bill jump unexpectedly, she says she called the Shreveport Water Department, asking if there was a problem.

A department employee told her there was a registered leak at the home, according to Simpson, and that was the cause of the high bill.

Simpson and her son hired a plumber, whom she says located only one problem.  That was with the toilet in Green's bathroom, and it was fixed immediately according to Simpson.

But the next month, the bill spiked even higher.

"This is the shocker," Simpson said, flipping through her mother's water bills. "It went from $119.48 to $345.98."

She said her mother takes a shower once daily, with the help of an aid, and laundry is washed at most three times a month.

When a water department employee told her on the phone in June that the total water use at the house was 29,000 gallons of water, Simpson said she knew the problem wasn't with the home's pipes.

"And then she told me, 'I don't know what to tell you, the bill is going to have to be paid'."

Simpson said she and her son really can't afford to pay the water bill at her mother's home.

But since Green is on a fixed income that includes a widow's pension, Simpson said they think paying is the only option.

"My mother cannot go without water. So what do we do? We get together and pay her bill."

According to Simpson, she and her son have paid more than $600 in water bills since spring.

Outside her mother's home, Simpson lifted the plastic lid that covers the hole where Green's water meter is installed.

Its face is scratched, covered with mud. And condensation sits on the inside of the meter's clear plastic cover.

"Ask me, the problem is this old meter," Simpson said. "I think the city just needs to go and replace all the water meters with new ones."

After watching the original KSLA investigation about a malfunctioning water meter allegedly causing an excessively high water bill, Simpson said she called the water department asking that someone come out and check her mother's meter.

"They told me someone would come by and look. But I am not here at my mother's house all day, every day.  I have no idea anyone checked to see if it's broken."

Through a public records request, KSLA Investigates obtained work orders showing that the city has replaced 3,128 water meters citywide since 2015.

Those records, however, do not indicate the underlying problem necessitating a new meter.

Nor do they indicate if the replacement was due to a customer complaint.

In fact, by phone and through email, city officials explained to KSLA investigates that the Water Department does not log water customer complaints by specific problem type.

Meaning, the city doesn't have a simple way to determine how many people are calling or writing the water department, to complain about malfunctioning water meters or high bills that may be the result of that type of problem.

And to determine if this is a widespread problem, city officials said water department employees would need to examine the individual accounts of more than 66,000 customers.  An examination requiring a great deal of time and taxpayer money.  One the city has no current plans to undertake.

The city has, however, adjusted Tieona Kelly's water bill.  She is a mother of two small boys whose account rose above $1,400 in just over five months.

Kelly said the water department deducted $140.25 from her bill after the city finally replaced a malfunctioning meter in August and she showed them a plumber's receipt from June showing no leaks at the home.

Now the city wants her to agree to a payment plan.

But Kelly said she and her fiancé have no way to pay off the balance, leading her to worry the city will turn off the water.

"Only thing that's on my mind is this bill," Kelly said.  "I want to pay what I owe, but almost $1,500? I thought them replacing that meter meant nothing was wrong on my end."

"That $140.25 really doesn't do anything to help me."

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