What would you do if you got a water bill for more than $14,000 after the water shut off to the property because it was vacant?
LOUISVILLE (WHAS11) — Paying the bills can involve some calculated decisions especially when paying in full will really drain the bank account.
“I don’t know how they’re coming up with their billing,” said Martez Hughes.
For Hughes, a local landlord, one specific bill left him dripping with disbelief.
“I know that can’t be true,” he said, “it doesn’t make any sense”.
Facing way more than just a trickle of extra charges, a massive H2O ‘I owe you’ adding up to more than $14,000 for a property no one was even living in at the time.
“They’re claiming a portion of it happened while it was vacant,” Hughes said. “I don’t know where that amount of water came from.”
Without a renter, and therefore no need for water service, Hughes created what is called a ‘drain only’ account and he was billed a fixed service charge based on the size of the water meter. Read more about MSD rates here.
A letter to Hughes from the Louisville Water Company lays out a timeline detailing how they believe it all added up.
To summarize, on March 17, 2014, a neighbor reported water running at the Hughes property and the Louisville Water Company sent out an emergency field service to respond. The technician found water service turned when the service should have been off and noted that two million gallons of water had passed through Hughes’ water meter.
Then on August 14, 2014, the water meter was read again and it indicated another 6000 gallons of water had passed through Hughes meter while the water service should have been shut off.
The WHAS11 iTeam attempted to track down the neighbor that called the Louisville Water Company.
Mark Weaver has lived in the house to the left of Hughes’ property for close to 10 years.
“If that would have happened, I got his number, I would have called him and let him know”, Weaver told us.
Like the other neighbors we spoke with, Weaver never saw a leak or made the call to the water company.
“The only way that a neighbor could have seen the water at the property running would have been on the outside in the yard or at the meter,” Hughes contests.
But Hughes doesn’t have any of those details.
“They’re telling me that the technician didn’t note anything, he just shut the water off,” Hughes said.
Hughes swears there was never a leak on the inside of the house because if that much water leaked inside the house, repairs would have been extensive.
“I never did make any repairs to fix any problems on my end,” Hughes said. “It’s a lake, I mean, ha, ha, I mean it’s ridiculous”.
Louisville Water claims even the smallest leak gone unnoticed can add up to gallons quickly.
“The top of the pencil,” Kelley Dearing Smith, Louisville Water Company Communications & Marketing VP points out, “that’s a fourth of an inch, let’s just say that stream of water dripping like that for three months can be over a million gallons of water.”
We did the math.
That’s more than 13,000 gallons per day, 555 gallons per hour, or 9-and-a-quarter gallons every minute.
At Hughes’ house, Louisville Water says before the emergency shutoff, the meter showed that more than two million gallons flowed through it over about three years, which is about a gallon a minute.
“We invite customers to come in if there’s a dispute,” said Smith, with the Louisville Water Company.
Hughes appealed to the water company back in December, even though the water company had already knocked 75 percent off his bill.
Although the records cited by the water company didn’t exactly line up with the account information obtained by Hughes and provided to the WHAS11 iTeam, it was close.
Water company representatives noted, “on 8-20, it was $13,896”. “On 11-24-2014 we did the adjustment for vandalism of $10,438.69, leaving you a balance of $4152.70.”
The billing information Hughes obtained states, on 8-20 the bill was $13,946. On 11-12-2014 after the bill was adjusted the balance was $4,271.
See for yourself: Louisville Water Company customer bill history
Recall from the letter, Louisville Water claims the neighbor reported a leak in March however the excess water was not billed until nearly six months later in August. We were told that that was due to the time it took to research who was responsible for over two million gallons of water that were unaccounted.
Despite the discrepancy, it was still way more than Hughes was willing to pay.
Hoping to prove his point, “I can meet somebody out there today”, Hughes invited the water company to come see for themselves.
“Jenny, maybe you or someone from your area could meet with him at the property and turn the water on”, the water company said.
First, they turned the water on at the meter
“The little red triangle, right here, this right here,” they explained, “that’s what they said would have been spinning”.
Hughes turned on all the faucets, the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink and tub, and flushed the toilet to make sure the tank filled up and stops and to check for leaks.
“No wetness,” Hughes said.
“If you do have anything internal going on, it’s not happening right now,” the water company explained.
Case closed? Not really…
“Is there anything else I can do for you while I’m here or anything else that you need?” the water company asked.
“You can make the bill go away, ha, ha”, Hughes joked.
Since Hughes got the WHAS11 iTeam involved and since the meeting, Louisville Water took another $2,000 off the bill.
Then a final offer of $18,000 dollars, with a year-and-a-half payment plan of a hundred bucks a month.
“I’m not falling for it,” Hughes said.
“When you see them just constantly knock thousands of dollars off the bill, is that strange to you?” Investigative Reporter John Charlton asked Hughes.
“Oh, absolutely, yes, that shows that they don’t actually believe that they’re owed that amount of money,” Hughes stated.
Louisville Water points out that bill forgiveness is part of their adjustment policy and the cost of doing business. Read the adjustment policy here.
“On average we can adjust between $600,000, $800,000,” Smith with the Water Company said.
All the adjustments made to customer water bills don’t even add up to one percent the Louisville Water’s annual revenue.
“It’s not that big of a blip on our radar”, Smith with the water company said, “doesn’t even register as a percent of revenue at all.”
Basically, a drop in the bucket, but someone still has to be responsible for it.
“If there’s a leak outside your house like this one, there’s something a property owner ought to know, if the leak is happening on the outside of the meter towards the road, well that’s on the water company; however, if the leak is happening on this side of the meter, from the meter to the house, the homeowner could be looking at a really big water bill,” John Charlton reported.
“Know your property, know what’s happening inside and out,” Smith with the water company suggested.
Martez Hughes doesn’t just believe, he says he knows he didn’t have an underground leak, “the needles not spinning”.
He claims if so, he would have needed a permit to dig up the yard.
We couldn’t find any such permits.
“There wasn’t a problem to fix,” Hughes claims.
Meanwhile, Hughes still wants to find out where all that water went. Almost 2-and-a-half million gallons down the drain.
Either his drain or a storm drain.
MORE: Louisville Water FAQs