Councilman calls Durham’s water billing practices a ‘screwup’ after adjustments

A city councilman responded sharply Friday after hearing some Durham residents had received water bills with charges hundreds of dollars more than normal.

Councilman Charlie Reece called the Water Management Department’s decision to bill some customers for water they thought they already had paid for “a screwup.”

Reece said he had received a handful of emails from residents who received water bills from the city containing an “adjustment” charge. Some of these adjustments reached back as far as 20 months and had a price tag of more than $500, including one for $831.

“This is an absolutely huge screwup on the part of the city and there’s no two ways about it,” Reece wrote in a Facebook post. “I do not believe that our customers should bear the burden of any errors in estimation made by the water department, especially going back years.”

Residents recently received their water bills and some found an unexpected additional balance due, they say.

Mary Lyons, a Lavender Avenue homeowner for more than 23 years, and Tanya Kinsella, who has been in her Durham home since February 2017, say they’ve paid their bills faithfully.

So the extra $831 on Lyons’ bill came as a shock, she said.

“Out of the blue, when you’ve been paying your water bill on time, and assuming all is good, receiving something like this is just unfathomable to me,” Lyons said.

Kinsella said her bill included an extra $561.

How bills are determined

The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun reached out to the city’s Water Management office by phone and email to find out the number of customers affected, the amount of money being sought through the adjustments and how long has the city has used estimates to determine water bills. No response was received Friday afternoon.

Mayor Steve Schewel said he has asked City Manager Tom Bonfield “to look into the Water Management Department’s billing practices and to let the council know about them.”

The city’s water management website says readings from water meters are used to determine a customer’s water usage.

But customers who called and complained say they were told by customer service their bills contained adjustments based on their estimated water use.

Fine print on their bills says the charges are estimates.

Bills are processed monthly, according to the city’s website. Unusually high readings are double checked before bills are mailed, it says.

“The city should explain how these estimation errors happened and then start charging for the accurate amount of water used by our customers going forward,” Reece said. “But we absolutely should not be demanding that our customers pay for our mistakes.”

An unexpected expense

The adjustment on Lyons’ bill covers more than 20 months when the water department underestimated her usage, she was told. Kinsella’s adjustment period stretches back more than a year. Lyons was told the city could reach back five years and make water bill adjustments.

They both worked out extensions to pay their balances. The city offered them six months to pay off the adjustment charges, which they’ve accepted.

“It’s becoming less tenable for people who are economically fragile to live in the city,” Lyons said. “It’s just really struck me how devastating this could be for someone who’s in an economically fragile situation to receive a bill like this.”

What happened in Raleigh

When a similar situation arose in Raleigh last year, the city waived the charges. Some customers had been charged the wrong rate for using water coming through Raleigh’s pipes for more than a decade.

Raleigh’s water utility office discovered pockets of residents living just beyond the city limits who were being charged the lower city rate for water customers. Wake County residents on the system pay a higher rate. When the error was discovered, Raleigh found it had undercharged those customers by about $1.8 million, The News & Observer previously reported.

Schewel said it was possible for Durham’s billing practices to be changed but only after hearing from the Water Department about the policy and practices.

“I want to hear from our staff,” he said. “If they needed to be reformed, we can certainly do that.”

The City Council will hold its regular meeting Monday night at City Hall at 7 p.m.

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.