[UPDATED 6-26-14] Four years ago, I moved from the metro Atlanta area to a small town in North Carolina. The culture shock was extreme, and it took me a long time to settle in here, but I have come to love life in our little community. My wife and I live in a small town called River Bend, adjacent to New Bern and convenient to my job and Allison’s. We rented a house in this town from a company called Management Services. Don’t EVER rent from these people — they are a nightmare. We once almost got levied a fee for having too many leaves on our roof. They snooped through our entire house multiple times on the pretense of changing AC filters. They even held onto our rent checks for a week, multiple times, just so they could post the rent late and get a late fee. (They didn’t get away with any of this, but they kept trying.)
So we bought a house, thinking that would get us away from this one evil company. It did, but we found another cache of evil that had been hiding in the guise of propriety for the whole four years. The Town of River Bend itself.
I’ve never been happy with our water service. The water is so laden with calcium and lime that showerheads and sink aerators are useless after a year. Glasses and dishes are never REALLY clean, even with a rinse agent. Laundry doesn’t get as clean, either, and even our hair (well, back when I had some) doesn’t wash properly. It tastes like crap. We contacted the town; they advised that proper treatment of the water would be too expensive, and that we should use a water softener and drink bottled water, at our own cost, of course.
For this we pay water rates that are THREE TIMES the national average.
Still, we try to be conservative with water. We don’t water our lawn, we don’t wash cars in our driveway, and we don’t have a swimming pool. Our monthly water bill is still around $60. We have paid it without too much complaint; we like the house, we like the neighborhood, and there’s nothing we can do about the water — this is the result of the lack of competition.
We went out of town last week — Allison left Wednesday and I left Friday morning — for Allison’s daughter Chelsea’s wedding. We weren’t to be back until Monday night. We usually pay our water bill online, but Allison was rushed and barely had time to write a check and drop it off before she had to go.
Sometime while we were in Georgia, they called and said they weren’t going to accept the check — they wouldn’t even put it through, because apparently a couple of years ago, we’d bounced two checks. (We had a checking account disaster — one of those bank reordering things, but that’s another story.) They demanded a payment by credit card by Monday night or they’d shut us off. So as soon as we got to a computer Monday night, we paid the bill online. $58. No big deal.
This morning, we got a call from the water people. They said that because the bill had been paid after their 4PM deadline on Monday, they were charging us a “late fee” of $70. (Yes, bigger than the bill itself.) Furthermore, if we didn’t pay that fee immediately, they would shut us off. I called them back, admittedly somewhat unhappy but still being civil, and asked them to justify this. They said it was a “standard” reconnect/late fee. “Reconnect?” I asked. Our water was not shut off — I had just brushed my teeth. Their condescending reply was that we were warned, and they were under no obligation to justify their large fee. I then informed them that I would be disputing this fee with the state utilities commission, and that if necessary we would see them in court.
A few minutes later they called me back. The woman, Mandy, seemed to be rambling, restating things that had already been stated — I see in retrospect that her purpose was to keep me on the phone and distracted, but I didn’t realize this in time. Sure enough, when I finally restated that I was going to the utilities commission and hung up, I went to take my shower and discovered the water was off. She had kept me distracted while her crew turned the water off at the meter, and they were gone. When I called back, she told me she now had justification for her reconnect fee, and to let me know how it went with the utilities commission. Can you imagine the evil of that?
Well, going to work with no shower made me mad, and when I get mad, I do something. So I checked the North Carolina Utilities Commission rules for water utilities. (Emphasis is mine.)
Rule R7-20 (d) Disputed Bills. — In the event of a dispute between the customer and the utility respecting any bill, the utility shall make forthwith such investigation as shall be required by the particular case, and report the result thereof to the customer. In the event that the matter in dispute cannot be compromised or settled by the parties, either party may submit the fact to the Commission for its opinion, and pending such opinion, service shall not be discontinued.Rule R7-20 (f) Reconnection Charge. — Whenever the supply of water is turned off for the violation of rules and regulations, nonpayment of bill, or fraudulent use of water, the utility may make a reconnection charge, approved by the Commission, payable in advance, for restoring the service. The fee shall be no more than fifteen dollars ($15.00); except, if the utility proves that its actual and reasonable cost for restoring the service is greater than fifteen dollars ($15.00), the fee may be set at no more than the proven cost.
So they broke the hell out of those two rules. So I composed an e-mail to the River Bend town manager, one Mr. Havens, CC’d the town mayor (John Kirkland), and of course by-the-book Mandy. In it I outlined the story as I’ve told it above, including the rules. I also opined that in light of the fact that this is a small town, I generally don’t expect this sort of garbage. Small town people take care of each other, and certainly don’t throw fees at each other just because they can — even if it were justified, which this wasn’t.
I offered, as a small-town courtesy, to give then 24 hours to work this out and either refund the $70 fee or apply it (in writing) to our next bill. I graciously promised that if they meet that deadline, I will consider the matter closed and take no further action. Otherwise, the NCUC would be brought into the discussion. Their move.
I can’t seem to get away from evil.
UPDATE: 24 hours passed and my e-mail was ignored. The following complaint was made to the North Carolina Public Utilities Commission:
To whom it may concern,
I would like to register a formal complaint against my local water utility, the Town of River Bend, for violations of the rules relating to public water utilities set out in Chapter 7 of the Commission’s rules and regulations as follows:
1. On June 25, 2014, the utility levied a reconnection fee of $70.00 for late payment of a bill of approximately $58. I believe this to be in violation of Rule R7-20 (f) which sets the fee at no more than $15 unless actual higher costs are proven. In this case, costs would include ten minutes of labor by a water operator and transportation costs for a one-mile drive; this cannot reasonably be set at $70.
2. On June 25, 2014, the utility’s personnel (Mandy Gilbert and Chris) were both informed that I would be disputing this charge with the appropriate regulatory authorities (i.e. this Commission). Moments later, they disconnected our service. This is in violation of Rule R7-20 (d), Disputed Bills, which clearly states that pending the Commission’s opinion, service shall not be discontinued.
Additionally, representative Chris stated that if the reconnection fee was not paid immediately, dispute or not, service would be shut off.
3. At the time the reconnection fee was levied, the bill had already been paid and service was not disconnected. Only after I disputed the reconnection charge was the service disconnected. I believe this to have been done in retaliation to my dispute of the charge.
I have attempted to resolve these issues with the utility. I even went so far, as a courtesy, of contacting the town manager and mayor, informing them of the errors and violations and providing an opportunity for them to correct them. They have failed to respond to my communications since the disconnection.
We paid the $70 reconnect fee because the utility gave us no choice in doing so. However, I do and will continue to dispute this charge. It is so high that it reaches the level of usury, and it was paid only under duress because we need our water service.
I am willing to provide affidavits, further details, and sworn testimony should such be required.