CHICAGO (CBS) — The CBS 2 Investigators get some pretty outrageous calls – and some, frankly, aren’t true.
That is what CBS 2’s Brad Edwards thought when a woman told him about a $60,000 water bill for water she never even used. Like many cases, we called the city for answers – and eventually learned our consumer was indeed getting hosed.
Helene Kohn remembers specifically that she and Edwards have been talking since Oct. 24, 2018 – which happened to be her birthday. And it was a bad time for the business-owning Kohns.
Kerry Kohn’s grandfather started his laundry and dry-cleaning business 110 years ago.
“It breaks my heart to come here,” Kerry Kohn said in an interview that aired in February.
“We found out that our tenant had not been paying the water bill that was in his name,” Helene Kohn said.
When the Kohns first called us, exasperated, they owed $60,119.81 to the city for water they never used. In 2013, the Kohns rented their laundry business to a man who did well, but never paid for water.
When that man fell $6,214 behind on his water, the city marked it for shutoff.
But the Department of Water Management worker – for who knows what reason – couldn’t find the turnoff mechanism, called a Buffalo box. The water management worker also made a couple of other gaffes, and the Kohns ended up on the hook for that $60,119.81.
[Do you have an outrageous water bill from the city? Email Brad Edwards.]
Listen To The Calls CBS 2 Received About Huge Water Bills
When after months, the city finally agreed to an interview, they admitted no wrong.
Chicago Department of Water Management First Deputy Commissioner Julie Hernandez-Tomlin said the water wasn’t shut off because the Buffalo box – denoted by a metal lid on the ground reading CWW – could not be located.
When Edwards noted it was located four years later with no problem, Hernandez-Tomlin said she could speculate as to why it was not found.
Hernandez-Tomlin: “It was the winter. There may have been snow on the ground. I don’t know.”
Edwards: “Oh, snow on the ground. So $52,000 later, now the Kohns are on the hook for that despite an admitted error by the Department of Water?”
Hernandez-Tomlin: “It’s not an error of the Department of Water’s.”
Edwards: “You sent a guy out there to shut off the water. He didn’t shut it off. That’s not an error?”
Hernandez-Tomlin: “No, it’s not an error. Just because the inspector deemed the property vacant, it had nothing to do with the billing.”
The city also had no problem paying the Kohns’ renter $504,627.71 in city contracts when he wasn’t paying his water bill. That’s because the water bill is the responsibility of the landlord, that is, the Kohns.
Water bills are now a mayoral mission. In announcing her 2020 city budget plan last month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the new Utility Billing Relief Program.
The program will cut water bills in half for those who own, resident, and appear on a home’s bill – and make very little, that is, less than $38,625 as a family of four. Those in the program can eventually have their past balance forgiven if they make all their payments for a year.
Landlords do not qualify for the program. Nor do those who have inherited a property, renters, or families of four making more than $39,000 per year.
During our inquest into the Kohns’ water bill, we found other stories. We’ve saved people tens of thousands of dollars, and there are several cases we’re still working on – 14 of them all told.
Edwards asked the Kohns to guess how many of those 14 people would be helped by the Lightfoot plan. Helene Kohn guessed four, and Kerry Kohn guessed zero. The answer is two.
The Kohns also note that the Lightfoot plan wouldn’t have helped them at all.
After months of communications with the city – a myriad of departments – the Kohns’ bill of $60,119.81 was lowered to $27,026.16. That is a savings of $33,093.65.
“Without your help, we would have been nowhere,” Kerry Kohn said.
But when Edwards asked the Kohns if they want to stay in Chicago after cleaning the city’s dirty laundry for 120 years, Kerry Kohn said, “We’re talking about leaving.”
“I love Chicago. I love our house. I love our neighborhood,” Kerry Kohn said. “But it just puts bad blood in you.”
City Finance Department Kristen Cabanban said in an email to CBS 2 that about 20,000 homeowners are expected to be eligible to enroll in the program. She said of the group, “any outstanding debt is unlikely to be collected by the city, ever.”
For everyone else, Cabanban said, “The city is willing to work with the resident to help find a way to compliance, including a series of payment plans.
That is the same approach and problem we’ve been highlighting all along.