Wake County

They got the wrong water bill for 12 years. Now they have to pay twice as much.

Raleigh water customers could see a rate increase in the coming year.
Raleigh water customers could see a rate increase in the coming year. Kansas City Star

Chris and Angela Humphries were confused when they received a notice from the city of Raleigh about a mix-up with their water bill.

Then they got a bill for $120, roughly double the cost they had been paying for years. They asked around their northern Wake County neighborhood and learned that some people had received higher bills without getting a notice at all.

“With the frustration and anger in our neighborhood, it’s hard not to get worked up and start yelling at someone about this,” Chris Humphries said.

For 12 years, Raleigh mistakenly charged in-town water rates to 635 Wake County residents who should have been paying higher out-of-town rates. Most of those affected live in the Jones Dairy Farm and Willow Deer subdivisions just outside Wake Forest.

Raleigh isn’t asking the affected customers for back payments, which would be thousands of dollars. But some are criticizing how the city handled the situation and are pushing the City Council to put in place what they consider a fairer rate.

The error cost Raleigh about $1.8 million in lost revenue over the years, said Robert Massengill, the city’s public utilities administrator.

“While we are sympathetic to the financial impact of these customers, we have a legal responsibility to correct the error,” Massengill said. “As well as a fiduciary responsibility to all the other customers who pay the correct rate, especially those who live within the same subdivisions.”

Utility customers who live in Raleigh pay the city an average of $52.46 per month for water and sewer service. Those who live outside the city but get water and sewer service from Raleigh pay an average of $99.86 per month.

Raleigh officials realized the error while updating the billing software late last year, Massengill said. He believes the issue began in 2005 when data was transferred from Wake Forest’s billing system to Raleigh’s system.

“Obviously, (the update) was overdue as we didn’t catch it for the last 12 years,” he said. “It’s unfortunate this mistake happened. One of the biggest mistakes is we did a poor job of communicating when we found out about the mistake.”

Raleigh sent several bills with the corrected rate before customers were notified about the change. A community meeting was postponed due to weather, and Humphries said the city didn’t effectively let people know about the rescheduled event.

The utilities department is undergoing an internal “corrective and preventive action” to look at what happened and where the process broke down, Massengill said.

“I can see how frustrating this has been for all of you,” Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane told the several water customers who came to a City Council meeting this week. “And I know the notifications caused a lot of angst right at the start.”

Seventy-two utility customers were incorrectly charged higher rates for 12 years, which means they paid too much, likely because they were once outside city limits and then were annexed. The city will give some of them credit up to three years on their water bills.

Raleigh should have been more open throughout the process, Chris Humphries said.

“Everyone makes mistakes. There are always going to be small mistakes,” he said. “And then you step up and handle it and be as honest as possible about it. But they haven’t.”

He and some other water customers say they plan to continue talks with their state representatives, including Rep. Chris Malone, to see if anything could be changed on the state level to help them.

“We don’t want to waste tax dollars in a lawsuit, or anyone’s time,” Humphries said. “No one wants to deal with lawyers if we can help it. We want what is fair and don’t want a long, drawn-out lawsuit.”