ROCKVILLE – After receiving many phone calls and emails last week from Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission customers complaining of high water bills – some documenting their bills being as much as eight times higher than normal – Montgomery County Councilmember Roger Berliner says he isn’t content with the explanations given for the high bills.
“I don’t know what the problem is, but I don’t believe that the answers that have been provided are satisfactory,” Berliner said. “You really believe that because there are snow days that I’m sitting in the bathtub for eight hours? For someone to get a bill of $1100 whose bill is normally $200…my belief is that something else is going on here.”
Berliner said his office started receiving calls and emails from WSSC customers last week, shortly after the bills went out.
“Imagine yourself being a senior citizen or someone on fixed income and getting a bill like this,” Berliner said. “It would not be a good day.”
WSSC Public Affairs Manager Jerry Irvine said the basic issue is that the number of days WSSC could not perform actual meter readings was higher than normal because the snow buried the meters.
“Because of the snow we got behind on our meter readings, and we’re trying to catch up,” Irvine said.
Irvine said it’s not that the bills are higher but rather that the billing cycle is longer.
“It’s a longer billing cycle, but we’ll catch up and even out the next billing cycle,” Irvine said. “The next billing cycle will be shorter. Most people are going to look at a billing cycle of 90 days and they have up to 30 extra days on their cycle, and that’s a 30 percent increase in what they’re seeing on their bill.”
Irvine said WSSC decided not to do a mass estimation bill – a bill based on last year’s water consumption – instead opting to do actual meter readings after the snow melts.
“We decided not to mass estimation because typically we tend to go on a high end of consumption,” Irvine said. “Most people would rather have that actual reading. When we do a mass estimation almost everybody calls us. People don’t trust an estimation.”
Berliner said his office has never received complaints from WSSC customers about estimated bills before.
Berliner said he’s received calls from previous WSSC employees thanking him for challenging the commission on the problem.
“I got calls from previous WSSC people saying ‘people make mistakes over there,’” Berliner said. “Human error can come into play here. If I had to pick between human error and people running a lot of water to make larger bills, I’m counting on human error.”
Berliner said WSSC needs to make sure there is no error within the billing system.
“We had a whole neighborhood that had very high bills in a very concentrated area,” Berliner said. “To me that suggests there was something wrong with the system, not with the individual homes. These people weren’t taking baths. They weren’t running their water excessively on snow days. Something else is going on.”
Irvine said neighborhoods see the same high bills because they’re charged for the same usage.
“Almost everybody in our system is billed quarterly on an individual basis by neighborhood or geographic location,” Irvine said. “The reason everyone around you has the same problem is because you’re all on the same billing cycle.”
Irvine said from now on customers will receive a bill insert explaining the situation.
“There’s no bad meter readings or fundamental flaw in our billing system,” Irvine said. “We get people calling that their average daily consumption rate is off, and nine times out of 10 that’s because they have a leak somewhere on the property. If your average daily consumption is way off, you probably need to call a plumber.”
Irvine said WSSC is pulling in multiple resources to catch up on their meter readings, including more workers and longer hours.
“We’re not trying to downplay this,” Irvine said. “It’s absolutely something we’re going to look at in terms of how we got this late. If it’s overly burdensome, we want people to call us and we can work out a payment plan.”
Berliner said even if WSSC offers a payment plan for those with high bills, it doesn’t help those struggling to pay their bills now.
“People budget, and you don’t budget for an $1100 bill if you usually get a $200 bill,” Berliner said. “Bottom line is this should not have happened this way and they clearly know it. They messed up in how they did it, how they communicated it, the whole thing. This was not their finest hour.”
Irvine said there is a conflation of customers who had leaks with customers who had a longer billing cycle.
“If you have a leak on your property for two months, that can triple or quadruple your bill,” Irvine said. “The person (who was on Channel 9) who had their bill jump from $200 to $1100 probably has a leak, not a longer billing cycle.”
Irvine said business closings due to snow is a contributing factor in higher bills.
“If you’re shut in, that’s going to increase your water consumption,” Irvine said. “If you look at your water consumption this winter as compared to last winter, it’d be different. Longer showers, more loads of laundry. It’s very anecdotal but also very logical.”
Berliner said he’s never seen a cost jump like this before.
“This is a first,” Berliner said. “It’s unprecedented and really strange given that it is a winter period.”
Irvine said the cold winter caught WSSC by surprise.
“Typically around here we get this big snow event and then two days later it’s 60 degrees,” Irvine said. “What’s weird about this winter is that we had a big snow event and then it stayed cold. Because it’s not typical for us, there wasn’t a recognition that this was going to be a bigger problem that we’re just a little behind. We were slow to realize how widespread it was.”