BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Questionable bills for Birmingham Water Works customers are nothing new. In fact, the utility just settled a class action lawsuit last fall where it agreed to several new billing procedures after hundreds of customers sued saying the utility wasn’t billing them accurately.
This comes after the utility admitted in 2017 their billing system had experienced problems after a series of our stories.
In the class action suit settled in late 2018, the Water Works never admitted doing anything wrong, but did agree in a settlement to read meters every 32 days.
But a growing number of customers reaching out to us don’t think that’s happening, or at least don’t think those readings are accurate.
“We’re not sure what we’re gonna do at this point,” said Reagan Ray. She and her family bought a home in Vestavia, and based on the previous owner’s average bill, they expected a bill of maybe $140 but the one they got was for $760.
“We asked for a re-reading of the meter,” Ray reports. “They called us about 3 hours later and said they had come out and read the meter, we had it on voicemail. We were home that day, working from home, and had been watching for them, we knew they hadn’t come.”
She says a meter reader did come the next day and first said he couldn't re-read the meter, then later said he had.
“At the street we lifted the lids and one of them had appeared not to have been read in quite some time,” said Ray.
“The story you just told is over and over and over again,” says Gardendale attorney Scott Morro who represents more than 100 Birmingham Water Works customers who just filed a new lawsuit against the utility.
“There’s a lot of things they’re supposed to be doing as a result of the lawsuit before that they’re not doing,” Morro claims. “They’re not being read, the meters are not being read in a timely manner.”
Our Call For Action team has fielded calls since the Spring from customers who say they’re getting what you might call unicorn bills, sudden one time unbelievable amounts that return to normal within a month or two. There’s no explanation from the utility other than they have a leak or are watering too much, something these customers say they’ve checked and isn’t true. The Better Business Bureau’s getting similar complaints.
So we went to the Water Works General Manager Michael Johnson.
When asked if he’d noticed any systemic issues with incorrect billing within the last 6-8 months, Johnson replied “No. What I would do is tell that customer if that customer comes into our office and we sit down with them, we will work through whatever issue the customer may have. "
Asked again about the experience of customers who say they’ve tried working through customer service channels with unsatisfactory service or a frustrating experience, Johnson said “Well what we would do with our customers, we ask them to come in or we go to their house and we take them one by one. If they do that we’ll come to some resolution with them.”
And what does he say to those customers who say there’s no way I have used this much water?
“What it takes is you have to individually sit down with the customer, and when we do that, we are able to explain to the customer why their bill is what it is. Only when you do that are you able to make a determination,” Johnson said.
All of this comes as the BWWB board will vote on Tuesday November 26th on whether to raise rates by another 3.9%, the 10th consecutive rate increase for ratepayers. After WBRC Fox6 began reporting this story and more than a week after we asked for an interview to explain how the system reads meters and makes sure your bill is accurate, the Water Works on Tuesday announced they will hold a meter reading demonstration and Q&A Wednesday, November 20th, and we will be there.