Elizabeth Taylor-Mead discovered when she checked her bank statements in August 2021 that the City had taken out a few thousand dollar.
Her water bill had suddenly gone from $45 per month to almost $3,500.
The Philadelphia Water Department was claiming that her one-bedroom home in South Philadelphia, a rental property that supplemented her Social Security income, had somehow been guzzling enough water to fill an entire swimming pool — every day, for the past month.
“Approximate gallons used per day: 12,745,” the bill read.
The withdrawal was automatic because Taylor-Mead had enrolled in the city’s zipcheck payment system.
“Suddenly, there’s no money in my account,” she said. “The city had it for a water bill.”
She called her bank immediately to stop the transaction. She was told by both her tenants and the maintenance worker that nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Can you really use so much water each day?
The summer news reported on thousands of residents who had received massively inflated water bills by mistake. Some had been as high at $15,000. She thought hers was also an error. Call customer service. Call customer service.
“This,” she said in February, “has taken years off my life.”
In March, after a 19 month tug of war with city officials the city finally credited the most of the disputed sum. The administrative review board that ruled in her favor didn’t provide her or the water department with an explanation.
Taylor-Mead has moved from Philadelphia. She is retired and no longer in the film industry. She loves the city’s history, diversity and arts scene, and had done some consulting work with an Arab arts and culture nonprofit. She was planning to stay in the city after retiring.
“To be honest, this has totally soured me on Philly,” she said.
While her billing experience is extreme, it’s not unique.
As the water department continues with upgrading all 485,000 meters in the city with new transmitters — the official term is Advanced Metering Infrastructure — residents have complained of water shutoffs for failing to comply and excessive bills based on past usage.
Residents like Kamilah Jackson say they have doubts about the accuracy of the water department’s calculations.
In March 2022, Jackson received a nearly $5,000 water bill, followed by shutoff notices and warnings from the city that a lien would be placed on her home in the city’s Graduate Hospital neighborhood. Her usual bill is under $40.
It turned out that a contractor from the water department accidentally read the wrong meter. The disputed amount was credited to her account.
“It was a yearlong saga. It really did impact my life,” said Jackson, a child psychiatrist. “Nobody believed me. Nobody would listen to me.”
The city officials claim that such mishaps and the high bills caused by past underbilling are a tiny fraction of all the millions of bills they issue each year.
Susan Crosby, the city’s deputy revenue commissioner in charge of the Water Revenue Bureau, said the vast majority of meter readings are accurate. She asked residents to help with the meter upgrades, since the new transmitters are able to track water usage near real-time.
“There’s bound to be some errors,” Crosby acknowledged this week. But, she said, “We have a wonderful billing, inquiry and dispute process. It’s very robust, and it’s there to protect our customers, so that if they feel that they’ve received a bill in error, there’s a process they can go through with many different layers to help them get resolution.”
Taylor-Mead’s $3,429.01 water bill arrived in her mailbox just as thousands of other Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) customers in South Philadelphia and elsewhere were freaking out about the same thing.
Maureen Molinaro for example received a $12,000 invoice at her Point Breeze residence, where she usually pays around $46 a monthly. A neighbor who normally pays $35 was hit with a bill of nearly $15,000.
“It’s crazy,” Molinaro told The Inquirer in early August 2021.
» READ MORE: A 25,000% increase? Philly residents shocked by water bills that are out of control.
The water department attributed those incorrect bills — which affected approximately 17,000 residents in 19 zip codes — to an “error with data files.”
“Mine was pretty horrific. It was over $13,000,” Chelsea Burns, of Point Breeze, said recently. But, Burns said, PWD did a good job identifying the problem and fixing it: “They were pretty quick and true to their word.”
Taylor-Mead experienced a completely different situation.
Month after month, she’d receive auto-generated letters saying that unnamed city officials had been “unable to resolve your inquiry,” and more time would be required to investigate.
“Thank you for your patience,” they ended. “Sincerely, Customer Service Division.”
“It’s like the Wizard of Oz, with people behind the curtain,” she recalled. “Nobody will give you a name or a direct line.”
Taylor-Mead finally learned that her high bill is You can also check out our other blog posts. related to the error in data. But what about the figure on her bill that said that her tenants used more than 12,000 gallons of water per day? This You can learn more about it here wrong. The city still wanted her to pay the full amount.
“The bill is correct as issued … . Please arrange to satisfy the open balance on the account,” wrote a hearing examiner in June 2022, concluding that the bill was the result of actual water used at some point over a 20-month period when PWD was estimating her water usage. The bills likely reverted to estimates because her meter wasn’t properly transmitting monthly readings.
Taylor-Mead seemed to be confused. It’s a tiny, 624-square-foot trinity house. The bills were around $50 when the meter worked properly. This was consistent with the estimated charges.
She was a Pennsport resident, was in constant contact with her tenants and always had an on-call maintenance worker. Nobody was filling up pools or watering the lawns. She reported that there were no leaks or repairs. The bills were normalized after the November 2021 upgrade of her meter. She suspects that there may have been a problem in the billing system or with the old meter.
“I think these bureaucracies rely on the fact that if they just gaslight you long enough, at some point you think, ‘The hell with it.’ and just pay,” Taylor-Mead said. “But they picked on the wrong little old Sicilian lady.”
She continued to push on until 2023.
In February, she flew to Philadelphia from Boston The Tax Review Board will hold an audit. There was no board. Two officials were on a computer screen. She hadn’t been informed the hearing was remote.
“This is so Philadelphia,” she thought.
Kevin O’Brien, the maintenance worker who attended the hearing to testify that the property did not have any major leaks, described it as “the most Kafkaesque experience of my life.”
“She came all the way to Philly to appear in person, but it was by Zoom in a conference room — to somewhere else in Philly,” he said.
The hearing master ruled in Taylor-Mead’s favor and said her account should be credited for about $3,000. He didn’t give a reason.
It sounded to her like she’d won. But after a month with no word, she reached out to the city’s Office of Administrative Review. A staffer wrote back that the case manager responsible for processing her decision letter “is no longer with the office” and had “left all his work unfinished.”
It would become official within “two billing cycles,” she was told.
Taylor-Mead has put the ordeal behind her and is now in the process to sell the house.
“Definitely a wild ride,” she said.
You must read the fine print.
Department spokesperson Brian Rademaekers said this week that the department still believes that Taylor-Mead’s bill was accurate — that the water was, in fact, used. According to him, the most common cause of leaks is a toilet flap that has failed or a malfunctioning one. But Melissa Andre, executive director of the Tax Review Board, said that its hearing officer found Taylor-Mead’s “testimony and evidence credible.”
The epic dispute serves as a reminder to residents that they are responsible for notifying their water department when bills are based more on estimates than actual readings. They could be faced with large bills in the future if they don’t notify the water department. The department claims that the residents have been underestimating their usage for months.
“If people have autopay set up, they could potentially be paying estimated bills for months, then have to catch up on that when it’s corrected,” Rademaekers said. “Take a look at your bill right now. If you are getting an estimated bill we’ll make an appointment with you and upgrade that meter.”
Rademaekers stated that 93% of the accounts are billed on actual readings. The meter upgrade, which started in 2019 and is expected to be finished by May 20,25, will further reduce the number estimated bills.
As for Jackson, the woman who received a $5,000 bill, Rademaekers said a contractor performing a meter upgrade went to the wrong house and Jackson’s meter reading was inadvertently compared to the meter at that address.
“These types of errors are very rare,” Rademaekers said. According to him, customer surveys show that 95% are either satisfied or extremely satisfied with the new meters.
David Denenberg, an attorney who represented Jackson in her appeal, said PWD could do a better job explaining the customer’s responsibility to notify the utility if their meter is not properly transmitting data.
“I’m a lawyer, and I look at it like, ‘Give me a bill and I pay it,’” Denenberg said. “I don’t look to see if it’s actual or estimated.”
Jackson has an upgraded meter and her monthly bills are around $40. Her frustration was heightened by the threat to place a lien against her house. She never got an apology.
“I was almost having a heart attack over here,” she said. “I would like to not have anyone else have to go through this.”
The report was contributed by Lizzy M. McLellan.