By Brad Edwards and Paige Tortorelli
CHICAGO (CBS) – Chicago’s water billing system has long baffled customers. Now, the city’s inexplicable method for calculating water bills has even stumped CBS 2 Investigators.
“They’re pulling numbers out of a hat,” said Kathleen Zook, who ranks among the many people getting hosed by the city.
Her water bills amount to more than five times what her neighbors pay. Even harder to reconcile – the city estimates she uses six times more water than the average family, despite being the only person living in her home. She’s tried to inquire about this discrepancy, only to have the city’s ill-equipped staff feed her scripted answers.
Zook has an unmetered account, which means the city estimates her bills based on property size, plumbing fixtures, and other ambiguous guidelines that make it nearly impossible to understand how the city actually calculates the balance.
When she asked the city to explain its methodology, a customer service representative robotically reiterated her charges and then offered its infamous solution — to put her on a payment plan. Zook does not want a payment plan. She wants answers.
Zook’s bills had been exponentially increasing for years, but she was too preoccupied with her late husband’s battle with lung cancer to closely examine the charges.
“When you’re dealing with a life-changing situation like that, the bills would come, I was on autopilot,” she said. “I paid it. I wasn’t really paying attention.”
During this difficult period, scrutinizing her bills was not a priority. Like many people experiencing a significant loss, she grieved.
“Really it hasn’t been until this year that I feel like I’m more like myself – back to my old analytical self – and starting to question things,” she said.
So she began digging through her old paperwork and playing detective. She created an Excel document outlining how much her annual water bill cost and the percent the bill increased from years prior.
“In 2009, my annual bill was $371.48,” Zook said. “In 2019, I paid $2,351.18.”
That is more than a 500 percent increase over the last 10 years.
Such a drastic increase made her question if her neighbor’s bills had skyrocketed too. So she sent out emails, asking if anyone was willing to share their water expenses with her. Their responses confirmed her suspicions – she was being disproportionately overcharged.
The emails show one of her neighbors paid $39.37 a month for water. Zook, in comparison, paid $195.93 each month. The primary difference: this neighbor has a metered account, so the city bases their bills on how much water they actually use.
After learning the drastic price difference between her nonmetered charges and her neighbors’ much lower, metered charges, she asked the city install a meter. It put her on a wait list, stating that there was a lead contamination issue, and offered no further suggestions for adjusting her bill.
“What’s wrong with this picture?” Zook asked.
She then referenced the water and sewer rates posted on the city’s website to figure out how much she supposedly used.
“That means I went through 590,000 gallons of water in one year,” Zook said.
The average household uses 100,000 gallons of water a year, which means the city charges Zook the equivalent of what six families would use, according to the EPA. And remember – she’s the only one who lives in the house.
She broke these numbers down further, and discovered she was using more than a gallon of water a minute, according to the city’s calculations.
“Is that even humanly possible?” she asked.
Determined to find out, she turned on her kitchen faucet, placed a gallon of water underneath it, and let water pour into the empty container while she started a timer. After one minute elapsed, the gallon still was not full.
“This faucet would have to be running constantly – twenty-four hours a day to get to that water level,” Zook said.
She’s still grappling to understand how the city could reasonably charge her thousands of dollars for water that far exceeds what a family – let alone one person – could reasonably use.
With no tangible explanation from the city, CBS 2 requested a Freedom of Information Act from Chicago’s Department of Finance that outlines its billing regulations. In response, the Department sent us Chicago’s Municipal Codes.
We tried comparing the billing parameters outlined in Chicago’s municipal code with the ones on the back of Zook’s water bill. The numbers did not match up.
“There’s no way to check that these numbers are correct,” Zook said.
This is not the first time the city’s inexplicable and outrageous water bills have left Chicagoans submerged in a sea of questions.
Since we first aired our “Getting Hosed” series, we have heard from dozens of people battling the city over unfair bills. Many of them own properties in the city’s South and West side neighborhoods.
The city may not be tracking how its customers are billed, but we certainly are.