CHICAGO (CBS) — Once again, we’re pushing for answers about bad billing at the Chicago Department of Water Management.
It is a problem we have been investigating at CBS 2 for years – including last week, when CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards introduced you to Beatrice Ritchie. She is a former special education teacher for the Chicago Public Schools who is now battling dementia.READ MORE: Chicago Police Officer Shot In Shopping Center Parking Lot At North And Sheffield Avenues
Ritchie had been handed a bill for $57,133.78 – for water never used.
Two City of Chicago plumbers confirmed there was not more than $50,000 of water running or leaking at the vacant and boarded-up six-flat for which Ritchie is being charged.
“They’ll square up the bill for you, because that ain’t right – $52,000 for this thing?” the plumber told Ritchie. “You’re not even using any water.”
CBS 2’s Tara Molina went in search of answers on Thursday, and hand a tough time getting them. She was able to ask Mayor Lori Lightfoot two questions at her water-related press conference – and one of them focused on how hard it is to get information from the city’s Water Department on water issues.
Our city requests for information about city billing and city water issues get delayed for months – and when we finally a response from the City of Chicago’s Water Management Department, it is heavily redacted.
Meanwhile, people like Ritchie are stuck with the bills.
“They want $57,000 for water,” she told Edwards. “That doesn’t make any kind of sense.”
It is tough to make sense of something the city won’t explain. So Molina asked Mayor Lightfoot about that – our issues getting information.
Molina: “We’ve uncovered bad, wrong billing practices by the city. And at this point the water department will no longer address our questions about specific accounts. So what’s being done to not only address the billing issue, but transparency?”
Lightfoot: “I’m not aware that the Water Department won’t address your specific questions. I think they have been extraordinarily cooperative and transparent in the inquiries that you’ve made.”
Do those heavily-redacted documents the Water Department has released to us constitute being “extraordinarily cooperative?” We don’t think so.
But it doesn’t matter what we think. It’s about people like Ritchie – a 91-year-old Chicago taxpayer with dementia who owns a vacant building with no water connection – but is still being billed for water anyway.
Mayor Lightfoot’s response to Molina’s questions on Thursday revolved largely around the city’s Utility Billing Relief Program.READ MORE: More Than A Third Of CPD Staff Missed Vaccine Reporting Deadline; City Could Begin Placing Employees On 'No Pay' Status Today
“what we want to make sure is these basic human rights – water being key – that people have access to it,” the mayor said, adding, “I hope you’ll spend some of your time publicizing the availability of this utility relief.”
The relief program cuts water bills in half for those who own, live in, and appear on a home’s bill – and who make less than $38,625 as a family of four. Those in the program can eventually have all of their past balance forgiven – if they make all their payments for a year.
But landlords like Beatrice don’t qualify. Those who have inherited a property, renters, or families of four making more than $39,000 a year, don’t qualify either.
Actually, none of the people we’ve interviewed for our “Getting Hosed” series, since the relief program was put in place, have qualified for it.
“You’re always going to be able to find one or two people who can’t take advantage of the program,” the mayor said. “What I hope you’re doing is as you’re finding those folks, is encouraging them to take advantage of them program.”
But again, Ritchie cannot take advantage of the program, nor can others being affected by the city’s billing practices.
We’ve tried to explain that – in our reporting, at the news conference Thursday, and in follow-ups with the Mayor’s press secretary, whose salary you pay.
Mayor Lightfoot also said, “I will say I don’t stay up late enough to watch the evening news.”
And again, we don’t have a real response from the Water Department to issues with Ritchie’s bill. There are payment plans available for up to three years under which bill would be more than $1,500 a month, but again, that would be for water she hasn’t used.
While two city plumbers have confirmed Ritchie’s water is off, it doesn’t seem like she should owe anything – but the city is not acknowledging that. Most people we’ve interviewed for the “Getting Hosed” series are told to go on a payment plan, even in cases like this one.
Molina’s full exchange with Mayor Lightfoot Thursday on this subject is below:
Molina: “For years now through our series ‘Getting Hosed,’ we’ve uncovered bad, wrong billing practices by the city. And at this point, the Water Department will no longer address our questions about specific accounts. So what’s being done to not only address the billing issue, but transparency?”
Lightfoot: “I’m not aware that the Water Department won’t address your specific questions. I think they have been extraordinarily cooperative and transparent in the inquiries that you’ve made, but what I know is this. We had a significant problem where water debt was accumulating to the point where people were feeling absolutely devastated by it. And like I said, prior to taking office, the city was actually shutting people off from water, which really I stopped during the transition before I was sworn in. What we really want to make sure is these basic human rights, water being key, that people have access to it and that we are doing everything we can to make sure we are working with our customers to give them the opportunity to continue the flow in addition to the people who have this backlog of debt.
“We also went out and worked very diligently to find those people who had been previously cut off to bring them back to service. We’ve got to keep, and I hope you’ll spend some of your time publicizing the availability of this utility relief package because there’s more people out there that we need to reach and we could use the medias help in getting the word out there. If you have a customized water payment plan that meets your realistic economic needs and you fulfill your obligations for one year, all that old debt, all of that old debt goes away. So we’ve got to get that word out and bring more people into this program, but I’m committed to doing that, which is why we put this program in place in the first place.”
Molina: “But in cases like the latest we exposed where a woman, her water was shut off. That was confirmed by two city plumbers and she had a $57,000 bill for a six-flat, I mean, that. It’s difficult to get information about those case and that’s not a case where if she paid it off for a year? She can’t pay off a $57,000 water bill.”MORE NEWS: More Water Problems In Dixmoor, After Pipe Breaks In Harvey; 'I Just Hope They Fix It Soon'
Lightfoot: “So, I’m obviously not familiar with that particular case, I will say that I don’t stay up long enough to watch the evening news, um, but, um obviously if there’s an issue we’ll respond to it. But as I said we’ve worked diligently to make sure we are reaching everyone that we can. You’re always going to be able to find one or two people who haven’t been able to take advantage of the program. What I hope you’re doing as you’re finding those folks is that you’re encouraging them to take advantage of the program so that they can address whatever the outstanding issues are with them.”