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“I’m lucky to be here,” said Rodney Andrews, a two-tour Vietnam veteran.
Mr. Andrews has witnessed the horrors of war. Yet, he said his fight with the city has been more difficult than the one he survived in Vietnam.
“It’s a sad state of affairs,” he said.
Now, the 70-year-old veteran just wants to live in his home, but he cannot because the city is charging him $10,700 for water he’s never used.
Unmetered Accounts: An Antiquated System
“Nothing!” he said after twisting faucet after faucet in vain. “This is what I’m getting charged for.”
Mr. Andrews is one of 180,000 Chicagoans with an unmetered account, which means the city bases his bills on his property size and plumbing fixtures – not actual water usage. Whether he uses zero gallons or a million gallons, he foots the same bill.
The city implemented its “MeterSave” program” in 2009. The program encouraged homeowners to switch to metered accounts so their bills would be based on water usage, and not city estimates.
The program even promised a seven-year guarantee that single family homeowners would save 25 percent on their water bills.
As of June 28, 2019, the program was suspended because of suspected lead contamination that meter installations caused. As a result, the 180,000 Chicagoans without a meter have no alternative but to swallow bills that are at least 25 percent higher than the ones metered property owners pay.
In another “Getting Hosed” investigation, we told the story of Kathy Zook, a widow who pays five times more than her neighbors for water because she has an unmetered account.
Without a meter, property owners essentially pay for “unlimited water,” according to the city.
The Former Commissioner of Water, Tom Powers, even dubbed the process for calculating unmetered bills an “antiquated formula” in a 2013 interview with CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman. Seven years later, the city continues to use this outdated method for calculating bills.
This billing process, coupled with the fact that water rates have increased 300 percent since 2011, has resulted in thousands of property owners who cannot afford their bill.
There are currently 5,359 Chicagoans who have an outstanding water balance older than five years. Not surprisingly, most of these accounts — 3,622 — are unmetered.
The Runaround At City Hall
After our first story on Mr. Andrews aired, an anonymous donor stepped forward and offered to pay his $10,700 bill.
“I couldn’t imagine that the city would be putting anybody through this, much less one of our veterans,” the anonymous donor said.
Mr. Andrews, however, was determined to fight the bill on principle. He teamed up with CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards and the two went to City Hall in pursuit of a fair bill.
What transpired was the epitome of a run-around.
They began at the Department of Finance, and when they asked where they could discuss payment options for Mr. Andrews, they were directed to the Clerk’s office.
When they inquired about the bill at the Clerk’s office, employees directed them to the Department of Water Management — a different department in a different building.
Edwards then called the spokesperson from that office, who informed him the Department of Finance handles billing disputes. After an hour of being shuffled from one office to another, they ended up exactly where they started.
Edwards and Mr. Andrews were kept waiting in an office full of other disgruntled customers, until finally, Joel Flores, the Deputy Director of Finance, approached them.
Chicago’s Questionable Water Billing Practices
Flores is no stranger. Edwards interviewed him at the beginning of 2019 regarding an inexplicable bill that CBS 2’s first water bill protagonists, Kerry and Helene Kohn, received.
The Kohn’s rented their laundry business to a man who accumulated years of unpaid water bills – which they learned about when they received a shocking $58,733.27 bill from the collection firm, Talan and Ktsanes in 2018.
Their renter’s bill amassed for years, and no attempts were made to turn off the water. The city claimed they could not find the shut-off valve in 2014, and it was not until 2018 that the water was finally shut off.
More alarming is that while the Kohn’s renter failed to pay the city for water, the city paid this irresponsible renter $504,627.71 in contracts for cleaning services.
The city issues thousands of contracts a year and it is too “burdensome” to ensure each of them pays their bills, Flores said in the 2019 interview.READ MORE: Discrepancies On Midlothian Village Zoning Map Could Leave Property Owners In A Bind When Selling Or Rebuilding Homes
Now, almost a year later, Flores stood before Edwards again, promising to provide more information regarding Mr. Andrews’ bill within 24 hours — a self-imposed deadline he failed to meet. In fact, despite repeated phone calls and emails, CBS 2 never heard from Flores again.
When the city finally responded, another spokesperson from the Department of Finance wrote it is “committed to ensuring all residents are billed accurately and efficiently” and that it was “helping the customer investigate why he doesn’t have water service inside of his property.”
The “help” the city offered? It instructed Mr. Andrews to hire a plumber, and once he did so, they would send workers from the Department of Water Management to ensure the city’s water valve was operating correctly.
The city also insisted that this appointment take place January 21, 2020 at 8 a.m., as that was its only available time.
CBS 2 reached out to Dan Macias, president of the Illinois Plumbing Inspectors Association and a licensed plumber, for assistance.
“If we don’t pay it forward, then what’s the sense of doing what we do?” Macias said.
Alex Ortega, from Reliance Plumbing, also volunteered his services to get Mr. Andrews “up and running.”
Macias and Ortega commuted nearly two hours that morning to arrive in time for the 8 a.m. appointment.
Four water management workers from the city finally arrived at 8:45 a.m. – 45 minutes late. They were accompanied by a department spokesperson, who refused to answer any questions.
The city confirmed what Macias and Ortega had figured out almost an hour before the city arrived — the city’s water valve was on, but the indoor plumbing valve had been cut off.
Vacancy Laws: A Way To Extort More Money From Property Owners
Mr. Andrews’ water bill saga began in 2003, when he purchased this home from a friend who was facing financial difficulties. The two agreed that the friend would pay Mr. Andrews rent, but he never contributed rent and failed to take responsibility for his other bills.
Mr. Andrews finally evicted his friend in 2007 for non-payment, and he was left with all the financial burdens of home ownership – including an unpaid water bill his friend never informed him about.
“I didn’t know anything about a water bill since I never owned a house before,” Mr. Andrews said.
The city also posted multiple “water service termination” notices on his door, stating the water was being turned off for non-payment.
Not understanding the complexities of home ownership, Mr. Andrews saw these notices and assumed his water service had been discontinued and billing had ceased. But Chicago has lesser-known rules and, of course, additional fees for turning off water.
For unmetered account holders to end water service, they must register the home as vacant with the Department of Buildings.
Registering a house vacant costs $300 every six months, and $600 if you fail to register it on time. Mr. Andrews would have paid the city $7,800 over the past 13 years just to tell it he was not occupying the home, according to these rules.
When a house is registered as vacant with the city, it prompts the Department of Water to end water service and halt billing. Flores even acknowledged this in his 2019 interview with CBS 2.
“As a property owner, when your building is vacant, you are required to register that with the City of Chicago,” Flores said. “One of the things that is going to trigger is for us to turn off billing.”
Mr. Andrews faced many financial difficulties after his friend left him with a burdensome mortgage, including nearly losing his home to foreclosure.
He, however, received aid from a lawyer who helped him obtain a grant from the Chicago Housing Authority to help pay his mortgage. This lawyer also assisted Mr. Andrews with registering his house as vacant in 2009, 2012, and 2013, but he failed to register it in subsequent years.
The only way for water service to resume, however, is if the property owner pays all outstanding water and sewer fees, according to the city municipal code.
Mr. Andrews has never made a water bill payment, so per the city’s rule, his billing should have never resumed.
Seeing Water In His Home For the First Time
Macias and Ortega diligently worked in freezing temperatures to reconnect valves so Mr. Andrews could finally have running water in his house.
“I feel like something really good is going to happen,” Mr. Andrews said.
Something good did happen. Access to water, which in an inalienable right, flowed through the pipes in Mr. Andrews’ property for the first time in more than 10 years.
“I saw some water!” Mr. Andrews exclaimed as it came gushing out of the faucet.
The “Getting Hosed” series is about more than meters and billing calculations — it’s about the people whose lives these policies affect and the hardships they must endure to have one of the most fundamental human rights.
Since our last investigation aired, #TeamRodney has expanded. Alderman Beale, Senator Duckworth, Congressman Rush, an anonymous donor, and several plumbing all-stars have stepped in to restore water in Mr. Andrews’ home and helped him advocate for a fair bill.
“I’m so happy I don’t know what to say,” Mr. Andrews said. “Christmas all over again!”MORE NEWS: Chicago Weather: Sunny, Warmer Week Ahead