If you are accustomed to paying $60 for your home’s water usage every three months, imagine the shock of opening your next quarterly bill to see it skyrocket one hundred times higher your previous one!
Just ask Lola Buffkin, who owns a four-flat in south suburban Dolton. She had been paying an estimated water bill to the village for several years. But last summer Buffkin received a bill for nearly $8,000.
“I got a sticker shock,” said Lola Buffkin. “There’s money that you have to put out that you didn’t have in your budget.”
A huge water bill could be the result of a running toilet or leaking pipes. But NBC 5 Investigates has found more than 2,300 water customers in Dolton received higher-than-normal bills in 2017.
NBC 5 Investigates obtained a list of all the quarterly water bills sent out to Dolton’s 9031 households and buildings last year. The data shows 699 customers saw their water bills go up by at least half. Another 1,426 customers received bills that went up two to nine times their previous bill. Additionally, 210 customers saw their water bill shoot up ten to 99 times their previous quarterly bill. And 16, including Buffkin and her neighbor Belinda Hamer, opened their water bills to find it was more than 100 times higher than the amount of their previous bill.
“I don’t mind paying it,” said Hamer, who received a $13,000 bill. “I just feel as though we were kind of blindsided by the way they’re doing business or lack of doing business.”
Hamer said the village trimmed a few thousand dollars off her bill. Still, she said she is now on a payment plan and will be paying $500 a month until it is paid in full.
The village’s data also shows three homeowners who each received water bills in 2017 that were nearly one thousand times higher than their previous bill. From approximately $56 for each of them in August to more than $50,000 each in November.
NBC 5 Investigates did confirm with one of the residents that her $50,000 bill was an error that was soon corrected the village.
“If someone gets an unusually high bill, it’s more than likely a mistake and the village will help straighten it out,” said Dolton trustee Valeria Stubbs.
Dolton mayor Riley Rogers told NBC 5 Investigates that the village had lacked the manpower to collect accurate water meter readings, so they relied on estimated water billing for many customers. He also said it can be difficult for meter readers to access multi-unit buildings, like the ones owned by Buffkin and Hamer.
“In some cases the water meter readers were able to get actual readings and many cases they were not,” Rogers said. “Where the residents didn’t let them in and that caused a flow of estimated bills.”
The village says residents are supposed to report their own water usage by filling out yellow forms left by meter readers. However, Buffkin and Hamer said often times they never even knew a village meter reader stopped by their properties.
Rogers said communication with the public could have been better.
Still, the mayor acknowledged stepping up meter readings around the same time customers saw their bills increase.
“I have really demanded that the water meter readers make a special effort to get into those households and be able to take the current readings so we can get actual readings because in some cases we’re actually selling water for cheaper than what we’re purchasing it for,” Rogers said.
Rogers said the village needs to collect accurate water meter readings in order to provide funding for its infrastructure. He said he is also in favor of purchasing water meters that can be read via satellites.
Frustration over the bills is happening as the village is facing a multi-million dollar lawsuit from the City of Chicago. The city is demanding nearly $8 million in past due bills and penalties for water that Dolton bought from the city and then sold to its residents.
“Whether we owed the money or not, we still need to have accurate readings,” said Rogers, who argues residents in Dolton have affordable water bills compared to other nearby municipalities.
The lawsuit also alleges Dolton transferred $8.9 million from its water fund to its general fund in 2016.
“We have to do a better job to segregate our funds,” Rogers said.
Meantime, Rogers said he supports a ten year plan to pay back the City of Chicago.
Public records show none of the elected leaders in Dolton saw a major increase in their home’s water bills. Officials we spoke to say their bills stayed relatively low.
But much of this story remains a mystery, like how many bills were computed , how many were accurate and how many of them could have been errors.
“To me there’s a whole another level of administrative issues within the village itself and that’s what I think needs to be dealt with,” Hamer said.
Trustee Robert Pierson, Jr., told NBC 5 Investigates the village has hired a department head to “fix the problem.”