It’s hard enough for some people to keep up with their water bills but imagine paying someone else’s bill who uses more water.
That’s what happened when two men from Normal Heights discovered their bills had been swapped for years. The homeowners called NBC 7 Responds when they felt the city wasn’t doing enough to make things right.
“We purchased this property in 2002 and the bill has always been high,” Tim McMillan said.
Tim told NBC 7 Responds he had been paying more than $300 for water every two months and always felt it was high, living in a two-bedroom home with his two children. Over the years, Tim said he had called the city of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department over a dozen times questioning the bill.
Each time, Tim said he was told by water officials the bill was accurate and he needed to pay to avoid his water being shut off.
“Pay your bill, you’ve got a leak,” Tim said water officials would tell him, “call a plumber or stop using so much water.”
At the city’s suggestion, Tim said he checked for leaks, replaced pipes and fixtures but no leaks were found. Tim said he even let his grass die at one time to avoid the high water costs.
Last June, Tim received a $600 bill and said he had enough, so he called the Public Utilities Department. Tim says he was told to pay the bill and an inspector would be sent out to look at his meter.
When inspectors came out to Tim’s property, Tim says they discovered the problem. The city’s billing system had switched which meter was connected to which house, meaning Tim was paying for his neighbor’s water usage.
Joe Zumbo is Tim’s neighbor. In addition to Zumbo’s home, there are three-one bedroom apartments and the water is all metered together. Tim was told he’d been paying their water bill for years.
Jerry McCormick with the city of San Diego’s Communications Department told NBC 7 Responds according to the earliest electronic records for Joe and Tim’s water meters, the meters had been swapped in the city’s billing system since at least 1994.
“This is not a common problem but we do come across them periodically,” McCormick wrote in an email to NBC 7 Responds.
The city offered Tim a credit for three years’ worth of overpayments, totaling $2,673.13. Tim told NBC 7 Responds he doesn’t think that’s fair since he had been overpaying since he moved into his property and estimates he’s owed an additional $9,000.
Joe said he was shocked when Tim told him about the water swap since he hadn’t noticed anything wrong with his water bills all this time.
“I thought I was doing a good job being conservative with water use,” Joe said.
After Tim told Joe about the meter mix-up last June, Joe said he figured the city’s Public Utilities Department would start billing him for the right water usage from that point moving forward.
“Never did it cross my mind that they would retroactively bill me for their mistake,” Joe said.
In August, Joe said without prior notification, the Public Utilities Department attempted to take three years’ worth of water bills or $4,081.44 out of his checking account, all at once. Joe said the automatic withdrawal didn’t go through.
The city later told Joe a notification letter had been sent out before the city tried to withdraw the money, but the letter was not mailed to Joe’s current billing address, rather the city mailed it to an address where Joe said he hasn’t lived for seven years.
In September, Joe was told in an email by the Public Utilities’ Deputy Director of Customer Support Michael Vogl, “...we fully own this issue.” Now, Joe said he is still being charged retroactively for three years of underpayments and if he doesn’t pay by January 16, his water will be shut off.
“They’re just saying we made a mistake and now, we’re going to make you pay for our mistake,” Joe said.
According to guidelines set by the California Public Utilities Commission, a public utility can only go back three months when there is an undercharge. But the city of San Diego is a municipal water department, meaning the department can set its own policy.
Vogl told NBC 7 Responds in an email, “For consistency, common practices used by other utility agencies were considered at the time this policy was developed and implemented.”
NBC 7 Responds asked the Public Utilities Department to point out where the three-year policy is stated in the city of San Diego’s municipal code or city charter.
In an email, Vogl said, "The requirement to charge for services provided (without any time limitation) is found in SDMC §67.0501 Water Rates — Collection. The 3-year limitation on retroactive billing is found in our approved written policies (authorized pursuant to §67.0103 Water System — Administration)."
In an email, McCormick said, “We clearly advised the current customers that the issue was not their fault...The Municipal Code and relevant bond covenants require the City to collect for utility services provided...The City cannot simply forgive charges for services that were delivered…”
NBC 7 Responds checked with other California municipal water departments to see what rules they’ve set for customers who are over or undercharged.
In an email, Betsy Rhodes with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission said per the city’s guidelines, the department goes back three years when a customer has been under-billed. Rhodes added with overcharges, the city of San Francisco will refund the customer for up to one year of services.
Matthew Robinson with the city of Sacramento’s water department said according to Sacramento County’s Water Resources Ordinance, “No deficiencies or credits will be made for a period more than three years.”
Want to see if your city of San Diego water meter has been repaired or replaced in the last five years? NBC 7 Responds created a tool for checking, click here to learn more.