CHICAGO (CBS)Getting Hosed was going to be a single story about a couple billed $58,000 for water they didn’t use. Now, it’s more than two years of chronicling unfair and potentially unlawful water billing practices in Chicago. 

The CBS 2 Investigators have found the City department whose taxpayer-funded responsibility it is to provide safe, affordable drinking water has utterly failed consumers and undermined our investigative efforts at every turn. 

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We’ve long known the City takes an apathetic approach to customer service, but until this story, we didn’t realize how callously indifferent it could be.  

Targeting Chicago’s Most Vulnerable Population 

Beatrice Ritchie spent 48 years as Ms. Ritchie: a special education teacher at Chicago’s Public Schools. She dedicated her life to Chicago’s most vulnerable. Now she’s the vulnerable one: she has dementia. 

We interviewed her early in the day, while she’s still able to recount some of her greatest accomplishments, such as being the second Black speech therapist in the City of Chicago. 

But what brought us to Ms. Ritchie wasn’t her impressive teaching background or her failing memory — it was her water bill, which she’s of course forgotten. 

The bill for her Southside six-flat is now nearly $60,000 for water that was never used. In fact, the building has been boarded up and vacant since her last tenant moved out in 2018. 

The Water Is Off

Russell Cochran is Beatrice’s son-in-law and now one of her primary caregivers. He’s been fervently fighting this bill on her behalf. 

And there’s one thing he wants to make clear: “Water’s shut off. Water’s shut off in the street. Water’s shut off in the building.”

But it’s not Russell making this assertion he captured two separate Chicago Department of Water Management employees verifying the water was off at the property. 

  

A Fallible Billing System

”I figured there was some kind of error, and we’d reason with the City of Chicago and they’d correct the error,” Russell said. 

Figure again. Our series, Getting Hosed, proves bills only get fixed when the CBS 2 Investigators get involved. 

 

Despite our nearly two years of exposing the City’s bad billing practices, the City told Russell its system is “infallible.” 

We’ve heard otherwise. 

“The systems are not speaking to one another and we have to address that issue,” Alderman Gilbert Villegas told CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards in February

Ald. Villegas, who once called out City Hall on Twitter in response to one of our investigations, says he’s been examining the City’s fallible billing processes. 

And he’s not the only City Council member who has taken issue with Chicago’s regressive billing policies. 

Aldermen Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and Daniel La Spata co-sponsored the recently introduced “Water For All Ordinance.”

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“Oftentimes our offices are left scratching our heads,” said Ald. Ramirez-Rosa.

 The ordinance follows the United Nations residential standard where you can’t pay more than three percent of your income on water.

But Chicago’s a long way from that. One hundred and eighty thousand accounts are still unmetered, meaning their water usage is based on estimates rather than actual gallons consumed. 

 

But as our reporting has shown, metered accounts are plagued with problems too

When a metered account receives an abnormally high bill, the City chalks this water usage up to a leak and typically refuses to explore alternative causes. 

In cases like Ms. Ritchie’s, even when the property owner has a plumber verify no leaks occurred, the City won’t budge on its stance. 

Placing The Burden On Consumers

The real leaker, however, is the City. Data we obtained from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources shows its ancient infrastructure has leaked more than 67 billion gallons since 2016, which amounts to nearly $265.9 million according to Chicago water rates.

Who picks up that tab? Chicagoans. 

Despite promising to end the threat of water shut offs back in October 2019, since she’s been in office, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s sent out 509,513 notices threatening to end consumers’ water service if they don’t pay.

We asked Lightfoot’s office why they would send out these notices — her office’s statement answered no questions. 

 Statement From Mayor’s Office Spokesperson: 

“One of the first acts taken by the Lightfoot administration was to end the practice of water shutoffs due to a resident’s inability to pay because it is her strong belief that every resident should have access to drinking water. The City has historically leaned on regressive collection activities that have harmed our low-income communities the most, and under the Mayor’s leadership, we have taken steps to reform these policies of the past. As the City makes progress in this effort, we remind all homeowners that it is still their responsibility to pay their bills. For those who fall behind, residents may receive a 30-day, 60-day or 90-day reminder notices asking them to come into compliance. Account holders who remain past due and out of compliance will continue to receive monthly reminder notices, and the type of notice varies depending on the account holder’s standing within the billing cycle. Anyone struggling to pay their utility debt is encouraged to visit the City’s website or call the Department of Finance at 312-744-4426 to work with the City to evaluate current debt and to bring their account into compliance.”

 

In addition to this lack of transparency, public record requests we’ve submitted are oftentimes delayed for months, and when we do receive them, critical information is almost entirely redacted. 

Months-Long Freedom Of Information Act Request From The Chicago Department Of Water Management

 

A City “Solution”

The CBS 2 Investigators have been asking about Ms. Ritchie’s property for months. The City, presumably unhappy with our two-year investigation, is no longer answering our specific billing questions. 

 Statement From Mayor’s Office Spokesperson: 

“Both the Department of Finance and the Department of Water Management are committed to providing the best possible customer service to our residents. If you have a question about your utility bill, please call 312-744-4420. If you have an issue with your water service, please call 311. We have been working with this customer and their utility account already, and will follow up with them again about their account.”

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Their solution? They offered to put 91-year-old Ms. Ritchie on a payment plan. A plan which will cost her more than a thousand dollars a month and take her years to pay. 

Brad Edwards