Houston – Cable, electricity, gas... if you want any of these things, you have to pay for them.
But what if you used the service and never received a bill for them? Would you call the company to ask what you owe? How many times would you call?
This is the same dilemma some Houston water customers are having. While many of you are feeling drained, and stuck with exorbitant bills, we’re hearing from other customers who say the city isn’t charging them anything for water.
Customers called to ask for accurate bills
“When you tried to tell them’ ‘Hey, you’re only charging me basic service fees. What did they do? What did they say?’” investigative reporter Amy Davis asked the man who says he can’t get the city to send him an accurate water bill.
He said the water representative told him, “Oh, we’ll send somebody out to the meter. We’ll send somebody out. We’ll send somebody out. We’ll send somebody out.”
For two and a half years, he has paid the same amount on his water bill- about $31.99. It’s the city’s basic service fee for water and sewer. The city hasn’t billed for any of the actual water he and his family have used. Several of his neighbors are experiencing the same thing. Now, he’s actually worried that if he’s too vocal, too public, he’ll be the one to pay for the city’s error.
“What is your worst fear?” Davis asked him.
“I’m going to get a $40,000 water bill,” he answered. “I’m literally waiting to open my water bill and it’d be like, ‘Oh, sorry, here’s your $40,000 bill.’”
His concern is why we let him tell his water bill story anonymously. His inaccurate bills aren’t draining him, they’re draining the rest of us who are getting higher bills.
And it’s not like the city doesn’t know. He says a Public Works employee came out to check his and his neighbor’s meters after several calls. It still didn’t change their bills.
“Do you have any idea why you would be so under the radar?” Davis asked.
“No, no clue,” he said. “I thought it was because of maybe new construction, but now that it’s happening to people that are in houses that have been built in the 60s and 70s. No clue.”
How many customers are getting water for free?
“I mean, I’m getting a service from you. I owe you money for it. So charge me for what I’m using. But don’t make me fight to pay you,” the man said to Davis. “We all want to pay our fair share; but now it’s to the point where if you don’t care, why should I care?”
Since the city doesn’t even realize that it is missing revenue from customers like him and his neighbors, we had to ask our question in a way that could help us determine how big of a problem this is. We asked the City of Houston Public Works Department:
How many single-family residential accounts have been billed for basic charges/zero water usage for 6 months or more?
Houston Public Works response: Approximately 37,500 customers were billed for basic service charges with zero usage for six months or more.
How much can the city bill in arrears after failing to send a bill for several months? Can you give me the statute that spells this out?
Ordinance Section 47-65 governs this process, which establishes a 24-month limit to bill in arrears. Houston Public Works uses a policy of catch-up billing for up to 90 days.
When we asked the city to clarify that last statement, spokesperson Erin Jones confirmed that while the city can bill customers up to 24 months in the past, it is currently choosing to only bill 3 months in arrears.
“Please keep in mind that this is the current policy,” Jones wrote in a follow-up email.
“What does that tell you about the Houston Water Department?” Amy asked the man who hasn’t been billed for the water he uses in 2 and a half years.
“They’re either making too much money or somebody just... they don’t care,” he replied.
Is your bill always $30-$40? That is a red flag.
During our “DRAINED” investigation, we interviewed other customers who have only paid basic service fees for years on their Houston water bill. Since they never looked at their water bills, they didn’t realize they were never charged for any water consumption. If your bill is only $30 to $40 each month, you need to check it. Look at how many gallons of water you are actually paying for. If it’s zero, that can cause big problems down the road when the city catches up.
We will not stop the ‘DRAINED’ Investigation
Amy Davis and the team will keep bringing you any new developments on Houston water bills, including the new plan Mayor Whitmire is expected to release soon.
If you have a water bill issue, there’s a good chance we’ve covered that topic. Check out all of our ‘DRAINED’ Investigations to find the help you need.