Durham County

$500 and up water bills in Durham? Unexpected adjustments have some scrambling to pay

Durham water customers hit with hefty adjustments on bills

Durham water customers say they’re being hit for water bills they’ve already paid, some going back more than a year. The bills include adjustment of hundreds of dollars for underestimated water usage.
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Durham water customers say they’re being hit for water bills they’ve already paid, some going back more than a year. The bills include adjustment of hundreds of dollars for underestimated water usage.

Some Durham residents got an unpleasant surprise when they opened their latest water bill from the city.

It included a hefty and unexpected additional balance due, they say.

Durham resident Mary Lyons received a water bill from the city with an adjustment of $831 that reaches back almost two years. She says her account was in good standing and the adjustment amount was unexpected.

Mary Lyons has lived in her Lavender Avenue home for more than 23 years. Tanya Kinsella moved from another part of Durham into her home 14 months ago. Both say they’ve been longtime water customers and paid their bills faithfully.

So the extra $831 on Lyons’ bill came as a shock, she said.

“Out of the blue, when you’ve been paying your water bill on time, and assuming all is good, receiving something like this is just unfathomable to me,” Lyons said.

Kinsella said her bill included an extra $561.

Both say they called the Water Management Office seeking an explanation.

Lyons said it took her more than an hour on hold before she was able to speak with a person. When she finally spoke with a customer service representative, she was told more than 50 calls had come in about water bill adjustments, she said.

Lyons posted her water bill experience on a couple of Durham-centric Facebook groups and others chimed in.

“There were definitely other people who were in the same boat,” she said. “No one’s got hit with a bill quite as high as mine, but there are people who have talked about $400 and $500 situations.”

Angela Humphries and Teri Patterson brought giant plastic bags filled with different types of coins to pay their water bills at the municipal building in Raleigh Thursday, April 12, 2018. They are frustrated that the city doubled her water rate.

Bills based on estimates

The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun reached out to the city’s Water Management office by phone and email to find out the number of customers affected, the amount of money being sought through the adjustments and how long has the city has used estimates to determine water bills. No response was received Thursday afternoon.

The city’s water management website says readings from water meters are used to determine a customer’s water usage.

But Lyons and Kinsella say they were told by customer service their bills contained adjustments based on their estimated water use.

Fine print on their bills says the charges are estimates.

Bills are processed monthly, according to the city’s website. Unusually high readings are double checked before bills are mailed, it says.

The women said they had no noticeable increases in their water use they believe would have caused such a bump in their bills.

Rising rents, taxes

The adjustment on Lyons’ bill covers more than 20 months when the water department underestimated her usage, she was told. Kinsella’s adjustment period stretches back more than a year. Lyons was told the city could reach back five years and make water bill adjustments.

They both worked out extensions to pay their balances. The city offered them six months to pay off the adjustment charges, which they’ve accepted.

“One of my greatest concerns about this is and one of the reasons I’ve just been so outraged is that we have an issue in Durham with rising rents and rising house prices and rising taxes,” Lyons said. “It’s becoming less tenable for people who are economically fragile to live in the city. It’s just really struck me how devastating this could be for someone who’s in an economically fragile situation to receive a bill like this.”

What happened in Raleigh

When a similar situation arose in Raleigh last year, the city waived the charges. Some customers had been charged the wrong rate for using water coming through Raleigh’s pipes for more than a decade.

Raleigh’s water utility office discovered pockets of residents living just beyond the city limits who were being charged the lower city rate for water customers. Wake County residents on the system pay a higher rate. When the error was discovered, Raleigh found it had undercharged those customers by about $1.8 million, The News & Observer previously reported.

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.