CHICAGO (CBS) — For years, the CBS 2 Investigators have exposed baffling gaffes in the bureaucracy that is the Chicago Department of Water Management: big, bad bills. By bad, we mean wrong.
Typically, it’s unmetered water accounts that are slammed with outrageous bills, but the city drops the ball on metered accounts too.
That’s the case for Laverna Poindexter, who has lived in the same East Hyde Park Boulevard condominium since she was a little girl.
Now, Poindexter takes care of her mother in the same home that her mother took care of her. And because she’s called this condominium home for so long, she’s willing to fight for her neighbors when something goes awry.
Back in February, Poindexter was watching CBS 2’s investigative series “Getting Hosed” and quickly realized that like the many Chicagoans battling bad bills from the Department of Water, she too was getting hosed.
The condominium building that Poindexter’s spent most of her life in received a $56,033.94 water bill — a shock considering their typical, bi-monthly bill averaged around $1,400. As the building’s treasurer, it was her responsibility to remedy the city’s error.
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For more than two years, the CBS 2 Investigators have reported on inaccurate bills, mainly for Chicago’s 180,608 unmetered accounts, which are billed on guesstimates, not actual water usage.
But it turns out, even when you have a meter — Chicago has 316,262 metered accounts — the city still biffs it.
A metered account is supposed to accurately measure the water you use, but for Chicagoans like Poindexter, that’s not always the case.
“I was stunned,” said Poindexter after receiving the bill.
A broken meter caused Poindexter’s bill to skyrocket from $1,400 to $56,033.94. The city acknowledged the inaccurate reading back in 2018 — and even replaced the malfunctioning meter — but instead of refunding the tenants the full amount, it only gave them a $15,771.04 credit.
Background Statement From Department Of Finance:
After a review of the customer’s account, we determined that from 2012 to 2018, the customer’s bills were estimated due to an equipment issue. In June 2018, an actual reading was obtained which showed that the account had been underestimated. A revised bill was subsequently generated to reflect the actual water usage that was not previously billed. In October 2018, the property’s meter was replaced and then tested. We have reviewed these test results and determined that the meter was registering slightly high. The City will be making an adjustment to the customer’s account. In addition, any non-payment penalties incurred from 2018 to present will also be removed.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it,” Poindexter said.
She’s not the only one who thinks the city needs a math lesson.
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Greg Pierce is another condo treasurer fighting for a fair bill. For years, the city couldn’t read his meter because of an “equipment issue,” so instead of fixing his meter it guessed how much water the building used.
Background Statement From Department Of Finance:
In addition, our investigation found that this property was issued estimated bills from October 2018 – June 2020 due to an equipment issue. Once the City obtained an actual reading in August 2020, the customer received a water bill based on consumption, which was larger than those bills that had been previously estimated. We will recalculate the billing to apply the rates that were applicable at the time the charges were incurred and will issue the customer an appropriate credit.
Only problem — its guesses were way off. When the city finally got an accurate reading, Pierce’s bi-monthly bill jumped from $45.36 To $1,459.54.
But the bad math doesn’t end there. Rob Khan, a lawyer representing a Hyde Park apartment building, doesn’t have any numbers to work with at all. He’s fighting the city about meter readings that don’t even exist.
The meter in his client’s building stopped working in August 2019 and the city replaced it in November that same year. For those four months, the city slapped the owner with a $10,573.36 bill — double what they would normally pay.
When Khan requested to see the spike in water usage, the city sent him meter readings with no data for that four month period.
“Show me these numbers and we will pay it,” Khan said. “The city has no ability to do that for us.”
The city even emailed Khan saying they don’t have proof of how much water was used.
“If this was a legal case it would be game over,” Khan said.
The real kicker — even when the city charges you a completely arbitrary dollar amount, if you don’t pay that bologna number in full, you get slapped with penalties.
Khan’s client has already accumulated more than $3,000 in penalties for a bill the city cannot back with real numbers. Poindexter has paid thousands for a bill she never should have received too.
“They were charging us late fees of like $1,000 dollars a month,” she said. “We probably have $10,000 worth of penalty fees on there.”
Despite making thousand-dollar payments on every wrong bill for nearly two years, Poindexter’s condo still owned $38,559.37 when we first started investigating her bill in February.
“I would love to see how much money they receive in penalties. Thousands!” Poindexter said.
Try millions. The CBS 2 Investigators submitted a Freedom of Information Act for the top 1,000 residential accounts that have paid the most in just penalties since 2000. Topping the list, a homeowner who has paid $17,272.32.
Collectively, the Department of Water Management has made $2,883,600.10 — and that’s just the top 1,000 accounts out of 494,610.
“What do they do with that money? Do they make things better?” Poindexter asked rhetorically. “No. I can answer that one.”
We wanted to ask the Department of Water Management’s Commissioner this too. We’ve requested more than a half dozen interviews over the past three months — no luck there.
“Nobody listens, nobody helps, nobody cares,” Poindexter said.
At least until CBS 2 Investigators get involved. When we brought Poindexter’s bill to the city, her entire bill was wiped. On top of that, the city gave her a $5,185.40 credit for all the penalties she had paid over the years, resulting in a grand total CBS 2 intervention savings of $61,219.34.
As for the bad bill Khan is fighting — the city claims it’s accurate. After we started asking questions, those four months of missing water usage reports magically appeared — even though the city told Khan they didn’t exist numerous times.
Yet, despite stating that bill is accurate, the city plans to inspect the building’s meter on Monday — but it wouldn’t tell us or Khan why.
The city’s also checking out Pierce’s meter next week for inaccuracies too.
“What would you tell the city who has done this to you and so many others?” CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards asked Poindexter.
“Shame on you. Shame on you. You know you’re wrong,” Poindexter said.
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