'Why is my water bill so high?' Audit shows Richmond is overcharging thousands on utility bills

Posted at 6:36 PM, Mar 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-11 11:27:17-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Garry Bloomfield remembered the day he and his wife moved into their new home on Richmond's Northside. It was Halloween.

“October 31, 2020," Bloomfield said. “A rainy Halloween too, I ain’t ever going to forget it.”

And ever since, Bloomfield has been dealing with a spooky situation.

“Since I’ve been here, it’s been a consistent thing. I’m concerned," he said. "Why is my water bill so high?”

Bloomfield initially reached out to the CBS 6 Problem Solvers in the summer of 2021, when he first noticed his water bills were all over the place. Fast forward to March 2023, and he said nothing has improved.

Some months, he said the bill was as low as $30. In other months, he said the bill was as high as $400.

“I never paid this much for a water bill in my lifetime," Bloomfield said. "This is the highest I’ve ever paid a water bill anywhere. When I lived in Henrico County, water bills never were that high."

Bloomfield said he sent several complaints to the city about the issues, and crews even came out to replace the system that tracks his water usage, which is the electronic reading technology (ERT) on his meter.

Even after that, he said his bills were inconsistent, and he believed it had something to do with how frequently his water usage is being estimated by the Department of Public Utilities. When a bill is estimated, that means the city didn't actually read the meter for that month, and instead took a guess based on past usage.

Essentially, a customer who receives an estimated bill may be charged for water they didn't use, or not charged for water they did use.

“It’s been very few months since I’ve gotten an actual reading," Bloomfield said.

“How can you trust that your water bill is accurate if that's the case?" reporter Tyler Layne asked.

“I can’t right now," Bloomfield responded.

And he isn't alone. A new report issued by Richmond City Auditor Lou Lassiter showed DPU estimated more than 130,000 bills over the past year. About 10,000 service lines were estimated for at least half the year, and nearly 4,000 of those service lines were estimated for all 12 months of the year.

DPU's own policy states that accounts shall not be consecutively estimated more than three times, but Lassiter found the department has no process in place to monitor the frequency of estimated billings.

"The large volume of estimated bills negatively affects the public’s accurate and timely billings as customers may be charged large amounts after multiple months of estimated bills," Lassiter said.

DPU spokesperson Rhonda Johnson said the department is dealing with a backlog of estimated billings due to the impacts of the pandemic and staffing shortages. She said she's still collecting data on how significant the backlog is and how long it could take DPU to clear.

Currently, DPU has a vacancy rate of 26%, mostly due to retirements in 2019 and COVID-19 in 2020. Johnson said attracting and retaining workers has remained a challenge since the pandemic.

The audit also revealed that 9% of meter transmitters are older than their expected lifespan of 10 years and may be damaged.

Lassiter discovered that older-aged ERTs led to an increase in the number of estimated bills on a service line. He also noted a connection between estimated service lines and the percentage of accounts with service orders.

Johnson explained that the meters are read electronically, but sometimes the signal from the ERT is blocked or unresponsive if a box is obstructed.

“Many of the meters really aren't responding to the in-person readings, so that is equipment that needs to be updated, because obviously, we need those real-time readings to work in order to give folks an accurate bill," said Councilwoman Kristen Nye, who sits on the city's audit committee.

Nye said the committee will meet with DPU leaders next week to discuss the findings of the audit and the needs of the department.

“We do understand there are some problems there. I think this audit is actually positive and giving the feedback that DPU needs and the data to sort of right the ship and get us back on track for billing," Nye said.

Lassiter made 20 recommendations for improvements, which DPU and the city administration agreed to.

Nye said she's optimistic council and the administration will work together to address challenges and provide solutions over the next year to 18 months.

"When we contact [DPU], they're really trying to work with customers, and they understand customers' frustrations," Nye said. "And they do want to get in the right place and have these accurate readings so the bills are more on par with where they should be."

Johnson said once DPU works through the backlog, customers who were overcharged will receive credits. Conversely, customers who were undercharged will owe more money to DPU.

Bloomfield said he hopes the problems get resolved sooner rather than later.

“Let's try to get this fixed, not just for me, but for my neighbors as well, the community, and everybody," Bloomfield said. "Because I mean, a lot of us right now, in these economical times, we're struggling.”

The audit also found:

  • DPU has a $60 million backlog of unpaid bills
  • Customers cannot view their bills online
  • There's no oversight process for tracking deliquent accounts

You can read the full report here.