$29,000 water bill! Problems leave customers with stunning fees

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“Out of the blue, I get a charge for $953. Never seen it before,” Lavie said. “I got online and I see it goes back to 2016.”

NEW ORLEANS — Billing mistakes have been a stubborn problem for the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board in ordinary times. Now, with many customers facing hardships due to the coronavirus pandemic, those issues are spiking yet again.

City Council member Joe Giarrusso, chair of the public works committee, said constituents are flooding his office with complaints from unusually high bills to wildly inconsistent billing cycles covering anywhere from 14 to 40 days.

“We’re hearing the same thing you are too, which is a big uptick in the number of complaints,” Giarrusso said.

Many customers with the same problems reached out to WWL-TV through the “Down the Drain” Facebook page created with the station’s 2017 investigation into the troubled utility. Some customers not only reported huge increases in their bills, but said some of the charges were listed from bills that were paid years ago.

“I have one in my district that’s $29,000 dollars,” Giarrusso said.

David Lavie, of the Parkview neighborhood, said his bills have been consistent for years. Until the last one.

“Out of the blue, I get a charge for $953. Never seen it before,” Lavie said. “I got online and I see it goes back to 2016.”

Lavie said he pays his bills using auto-draft directly from his bank account, so he fears that the money will be withdrawn before he has a chance to resolve his complaint. He said he has an appointment Tuesday with a S&WB customer service representative.

“They just hit me with some big charge that makes no sense,” he said. “How can they have mistakes like this if it’s all computerized?

Walter Wolf, who moved into a small apartment in the Irish Channel earlier this year, just got hit with huge unexplained spike in his bill.

“It was over $800 in water bills for an apartment that usually had been traditionally about $50 or $60 dollars,” Wolf said.

Receiving what appears to be an erroneous bill is one headache. Trying to resolve it is another.

“There’s obviously some kind of an error here and you can’t reach anybody. No one responds and I’m at risk of having my water shut off,” Wolf said. “It’s very frustrating, very stressful. I’m not sure I can express myself on network television using the vocabulary that some people might use.”

The Sewerage & Water Board issued a statement Monday acknowledging the problem and listing some of the plans to alleviate them.

“We have heard the multiple concerns from our customers regarding billing and share their frustrations,” spokesperson Courtney Barnes wrote in an email. “As you know, COVID-19 hit our meter reading department hard which forced us to increase the amount of bills we’re estimating and create inconsistent billing cycles. Our ultimate goal is to reconcile each account accurately and fairly. As always, estimates will be corrected and our customers be made whole. We also know many of our customers received bills reflecting a shorter than normal time period. That was a corrective action meant to reset billing cycles going forward.”

Barnes continued with a few of the long-term improvements he agency is taking.

“We recognize the multiple problems with our billing practices and are not happy with where we are,” she wrote. “That is why we are working diligently to implement an Automated Meter Infrastructure (AIM). In fact, we recently selected a project manager to oversee the $40 million dollar project. We performed a national search for a Chief Customer Service Officer and will be making an announcement on the selected candidate soon. And finally, we hired 25 additional meter readers and are researching immediate options for supplementing the department with external staffing.”

Despite the previous announcement that water shut-offs would resume July 20, Barnes noted that there is no immediate plan to resume any “collection activities.”

“We have not resumed any collections activities but will alert customers when that changes,” she wrote.

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