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The Watchdog: Stories of water bill frustration

At the hottest time of the year, homeowners sometimes get hotter when they open their utility bill. I've looked into the plights of people in four area cities who say they are frustrated with their city water and sewer departments.

When it comes to a water bill, can you fight city hall?

Fort Worth

Sue Stevenson was in a corner. She was selling her house, but at the closing she had to deal with an unexpected $1,000 Fort Worth water bill. If she didn't pay it, the sale could fall through.

She knew the bill was wrong. The Water Department insisted that there must be a leak and that the bill was correct. Two plumbing companies and two sprinkler companies attested that there was no leak. However, to protect the sale, she paid the bill.

Fortunately, her Realtor, Joan Trew, went to bat for her. She e-mailed a City Council member, then talked to a water supervisor. With Trew's persistence, the mystery was solved. A city crew doing road work on a nearby street caused the leak, which, for some reason, registered on Stevenson's meter.

Part of the Water Department knew about the road leak, but word was never passed down.

Happy ending. Stevenson gets a $1,000 credit from the department, which she will apply to her new house in Fort Worth.

Meanwhile, the buyer, who asked not to be named because "we're still working out the problem with the city," says her first bill seemed high, too. City workers have been out three times to examine the meter, and the city is testing it for accuracy.

"They were telling us we were using hundreds of thousands of gallons, which we weren't," she says.

Lesson: Don't give up. Overcome a city staffer's natural inclination to say, "Pay the bill," with further research. Involve the City Council if necessary.

Arlington

Bob Nelson was fuming after he attended a meeting with city staffers. Because of water pressure changes in the city system, they recommended that residents in Nelson's neighborhood install a pressure-reducing valve on their home plumbing systems to prevent backups and burst pipes.

The city would rebate up to $150 for a plumber's bill as part of a water conservation program.

Nelson's insurance company told him that his policy won't cover damage from an overflow or burst pipe because that's a maintenance issue.

Nelson got a bid for $1,100. He plans to get more. The unexpected cost angers him.

Lesson: Get many bids. A city employee wrote Nelson: "We suggest getting multiple quotes from registered plumbers in Arlington. The typical cost for the procedure is about $600 and that includes PRV, valve box, expansion tank, plumbing permit/inspection and labor."

North Richland Hills

Carolyn Fobes says she is getting hosed by her city water department. After her bill tripled last summer, she complained. The city said she had a leak. So she called a plumber. After checking, he told her there was no leak.

After that, her water bill dropped.

Now it's happened again. Her bill went up in the summer. The city told her she had a leak this year, too, she says. Then her bill dropped.

The North Richland Hills water department says it's not much of a mystery. They put a data logger on her meter to record her usage. They believe the data indicates that she waters a lot in the summer and then when a high bill comes, she cuts back.

The city also says that her meter appears to be always running, indicating a possible toilet or faucet leak.

That infuriates Fobes, who says the plumber couldn't find anything. "I believe the department is depending too much on electronic equipment rather than brain matter and/or logic in this situation. This just doesn't make sense to me."

Lesson: That's how a water department works. Staffers usually need an electronic malfunction or an actual mishap to justify a bill adjustment. Water meters are allowed a margin of error of 3 percent, according to industry standards. The city says that it has only sent one meter out for testing since 2008 and that it was found to be accurate.

The Watchdog suggests keeping an extensive water usage log to share with city officials.

Keller

Raw sewage backed up into Sandra Grimes' home. Other neighbors had the same problem. The cleanup was disgusting, says her daughter, Sharon Watkins.

Grimes hired a plumber, who ran a camera through her system. Her end was fine, he found. There was evidence of damage on the city side.

Grimes asked the city to pay for damage -- about $1,000. The city refuses.

The city story is different: Her line had a grease clog.

City Manager Dan O'Leary said: "My wastewater guys tell me that homeowners can have their outside clean-out cap replaced with a pressure-relief cap that will open when a line is clogged. This will allow the backup to flow into the yard and not the house." Similar to the Arlington situation, he recommends that a plumber do the installation.

Lesson: When a plumber hired by a homeowner finds evidence contrary to a city's explanation, take that evidence to the city. The best way to argue with a city water monopoly is to throw your own research up against theirs and challenge their assumptions.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-685-3830

Twitter @DaveLieber

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