Thousand-dollar water bills blamed on leaks

Phillip Arszman assumed there had been a mistake when his 65-year-old disabled mother received a $3,000 water bill last year. After many conversations with the city of Dayton, the frustrated homeowner doesn’t feel any differently today.

A city employee sent to the house replaced the meter but didn’t look for leaks, he said.

Arszman eventually decided to pay the bill to keep water running in the duplex he shares with his mother, whose one-bedroom unit doesn’t even have a washer/dryer hookup.

“It doesn’t seem fair to me,” he said. “But I guess I’m stuck with it.”

Arszman is not alone. He’s among more than a dozen people who called the Dayton Daily News to share their own water woes after reading an article last month about Marc and Judith Hamilton, a Dayton couple who received a $2,400 water bill for a nine-month period. (The couple has since paid off the bill, thanks to donations.)

Asked about the bills, city officials said they are a tiny minority of customers. They said outlandish bills are almost always caused by leaks, sometimes relatively undetectable that add up after going unnoticed for months when city meter-readers aren’t able to physically read water meters.

After a meter-reader sees a meter, the city can issue a corrected bill for back usage if estimates prove to be too low. That’s when citizens sometimes can receive large bills.

“We do see bills that are large, and they normally result from a leak. A leaky toilet is usually the culprit,” said Cheryl Garrett, Dayton’s finance director.

Mike Nolden, the plumber who inspected the Hamiltons’ home after they received their $2,400 bill, said there’s no way a leaky toilet could have caused that much water use.

“You would have to have every faucet in the house running 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Nolden said.

The callers’ details varied, as did the amounts they owed. But all said there was no way their water bills could have been so high.

“I don’t believe for a minute that much water went through the house … it must have been a meter error,” said Gary Wagoner, of Kettering, who received his own $2,400 bill last October for a house he had rented out to a family of three.

The meter hadn’t been physically read for almost a year by that point. Wagoner hasn’t paid any of the bill out of principle, and is considering taking legal action.

Ryan Arnold, of Pinehurst Avenue, received a $1,800 bill for his family of three after the city performed an acutal read following estimates for several billing cycles.

“I was flabbergasted. I was like ain’t no way,” Arnold said.

Arnold didn’t fight the bill and enrolled in a payment plan.

“I just kind of chalked it up to, this is what it is, and I went into a water payment to keep our water from being shut off,” Arnold said.

Diane Welborne, Dayton’s independent ombudsman, estimates that she takes between 60 and 80 calls a year from people with complaints about water bills. She said the vast majority of the time over the years, leaks — and not the meters — are to blame.

“Running toilets can really do severe damage to a person’s water bill. Most people, and I can understand it because I’m a homeowner and a water customer too, most people can’t believe it,” Welborne said.

Dayton is making a change officials said should help prevent some of the high bills. They are about 85 percent done replacing old water meters for the city’s 57,000-plus customers with new electronic ones, city officials said.

The old meters are nearly all past their 20-year lifespan, a point at which they can become prone to inaccuracy, Dayton sewer director Tammi Clements said.

But city spokesman Tom Biedenharn in an email emphasized the old meters are accurate, and the new ones can send radio signals to meter readers in the street, rather than requiring city employees to physically enter houses to read them.

“The conversion is not being done in order to replace faulty meters, it’s being done for better efficiencies and ultimate cost savings,” he said.

In general, city officials recommend that homeowners check their own water meters every so often. That way, an undetected small problem doesn’t add up to become a big one.

Joe Walsh, a Dayton attorney who has practiced here for nearly 50 years, said he has taken many calls over his career from people who want to challenge their bills in court. But he turns them down because they’re not winning cases.

“There’s no question about the fact that (water meters) can become faulty and generate erroneous data,” Walsh said. “But how in the world are you going to prove all of that?”

The city does have an appeals process that in some instances has resulted in bill reductions, although homeowners who want to appeal must first make a 25 percent deposit on late bills, a 50 percent deposit if a shut-off notice has been generated, or a 100 percent deposit if the water has already been shut off.

Since 2010, the Dayton water/sewer review board has reduced disputed water bills about half of the time — seven out of 13 cases, according to records obtained through a records request.

Reasons for the adjustments included a determination that a city employee misread a meter, and in another case, water usage was found to actually be another property owner’s responsibility. In two cases, the city board reduced bills to credit people for rehabbing old properties, city officials said.

Three years ago, Bob Pack, of Stoddard Avenue, received a $1,400 water bill for three months of water. He appealed and a year later the appeals board decided to knock off $700, although he’s not sure why.

Pack, who is retired and lives alone, said his home didn’t have any leaks. He wasn’t thrilled about paying $700, which is more than he typically uses in an entire year.

“But it’s like they say, you can’t fight City Hall or the water department. That’s the only reason I took it because … I didn’t know what else I could do at the time,” Pack said.

His water bills have since gone back to normal.

Staff Writer Jim Otte contributed to this story

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