3OYS: Mistake by water department 'floods' a Phoenix woman's budget

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX -- Most people are on a strict budget and live paycheck to paycheck. But a Phoenix woman says her monthly budget has been blown and it all has to do with her water department.

"The water pipe is right there and there's nothing that is being connected to it," says Selena Soto. Due to some home renovations, Soto doesn't have any running water inside her Phoenix kitchen. "We started doing this around August."

But the rest of her home does have water, and her monthly water bill is usually around $150. So she was a little concerned when she received a letter from the City of Phoenix demanding a large payment; "There was a previous balance of almost $900."

$862.57 to be exact. Most of that balance was because the city claims it failed to generate a water bill for Soto from May to October.  "Just because of that, they say I owe a balance of that I need to know why and how it got there," says Soto.

The City of Phoenix said it would investigate but told Soto she should make payments until they straightened things out. "They said the meter wasn't being read so you were not being charged what you were being charged," Soto says. "I said why didn't you guys tell me before? Why wait until November since it was going on since May?"

Despite the confusion, Soto says she agreed to continue making payments. "So I was making the payments and all of a sudden they just came and turned the water off," she says.

The City turned Soto's water back on the next day but she still had plenty of questions about her bill, like why the city failed to generate a water bill for six months, and how they expect a homeowner like Soto to pay nearly $900 all at once. So she contacted 3 On Your Side.

"I got really frustrated, and I've seen you guys help out other people, so that was my last resort," she says.

In an email to 3 On Your Side, a city spokesperson acknowledged their error, saying: "A back billing issue occurred when billing statements were not generating for six months from May 8, 2014 through Nov. 7, 2014, although the meter reads obtained were valid."

In other words, Soto did use water during the six months the city failed to send her a bill, and she still has to pay for the water she used. The city also claims Soto has a poor payment history which racked up fees.

Regardless, after 3 On Your Side got involved, the city agreed to waive more than $200 in fees and also agreed to keep Soto on a payment plan until her balance is paid off. “I have no way of coming up with that amount. To me, for me, it's really a big amount. I don't know what I’m going to do."

Obviously, Soto says coming up with six months of service is absurd, and she has to pay it within six months. But the city says, "Sorry, we had an equipment issue. Pay up."

The latest email from the City of Phoenix Water Department concerning Ms. Soto's bill reads as follows

"Ms. Soto did not receive a water bill from June 2014  through November 2014. This was because of an equipment issue. Ms. Soto's meter register was changed in May 2014. A meter register provides us the monthly water usage reads. Because of the equipment issue with Ms. Soto's meter register, Water Services did not receive reads from the register for six months.  There was nothing wrong with the actual meter reads of Ms. Soto's monthly water usage.

By law, we are required to back bill customers for their water usage. Unfortunately, back bill issues can happen. It's even more unfortunate when it occurs with customer who have a poor payment history. In Ms. Soto's case, we have not charged any late fees on the back billing. We will also be in touch with her today to work out a payment plan."