Complaints of “exorbitant” billing by Water Utility Management have resurfaced online, and two South Bryan residents are asking the county to do something about it.
The head of Water Utility Management, meanwhile, maintains the company’s billing is fair and its rates are in line with those imposed by Richmond Hill. It also said water use is typically higher in June and July, and that extra consumption leads to higher bills due to Environmental Protection Division mandates to encourage conservation by charging customers more for more water use, whether through watering lawns or leaks.
It’s the second time in as many summers irate South Bryan residents have publicly questioned the private water company’s billing practices, but it may mark the first time residents have sought to get officials to intervene. See our story from last July.
Jean Iaderosa and Cynthia Griffin, both Oxford subdivision residents, emailed a letter July 20 to Bryan County Commissioners and state representatives to “express concern on behalf of fellow residents of south Bryan County who are surprised and concerned at the exorbitant amounts they are being charged ....”
The email references a number of complaints lodged on NextDoor, a social media site, including a claim from one resident that her bill is usually $88 but was more $1,330 this month.
A number of residents also reached out to the Bryan County News, telling similar tales of unexpected high bills, unexplained charges and charges of poor customer service.
“In the last ten years of residing in Dunham Marsh, I have been overcharged three times for my water bill,” said Carolyn Oetjen, in an email. “Out of those three times, only once was I compensated due to my water meter not working correctly. The other two times I was told that I either had a leak or was using an excessive amount of water. Those two bills totaled to approximately $1,000.”
Asa Clay, a longtime South Bryan resident, said in approximately 20 years he and his wife never have had to pay more than the base rate until their last bill. He said he was told it was a leak, but proved it wasn’t. Clay blames a recently installed meter and said he’s now manually keeping track of how much water he uses.
“I’m going to check it three times a day and keep a log,” Clay said.
Ashton Gibson emailed to say her June bill was $440, more than five times what she normally pays, and said she manually checked her sprinkler system for leaks and found none.
Gibson, who also lives in Oxford, said she paid that bill “in July by the due date to avoid late fees and water shut off, but I still do not feel this is accurate.”
In addition to claims Water Utility Management is overcharging, residents also say the company has poor customer service. Gibson said $70 of the June bill was tacked on from the previous billing period.
“There was no explanation with my bill, just a statement that $70 was past due,” she said. “The prior statement I received was for $86 and I paid it in full. When I inquired about this past due charge I was told that they made a mistake on the last billing cycle and I actually owed this then so they added it on this bill. Is that the right thing to do? My usage on my last bill showed I did not go over the base amount of water so how can they bill me like that after the fact?”
Julie Lesko, who said she and her husband have lived in Buckhead South for nine years, had a similar story.
“Throughout the years, there have been issues with WUM billing and charges. Currently, there seems to be a major issue,” she said, noting her bill in April was $86 and was paid by the due date. In June, it was $470.83, which Lesko said was paid in full by the due date. “This bill had a current charge of $310.36 along with a ‘billing adjustment’ of $160.47.”
“We have tried, multiple times, to call WUM for clarification,” Lesko added. “No live person answers the call. We are placed on hold indefinitely. Also, we have left messages for return calls. Our calls have never been returned. We even received a survey, via email, asking us about our experience with WUM. We completed the survey with our response not being favorable to WUM. The survey asked if we would like to be contacted by WUM. Our answer was yes, we would like to be contacted. However, to date, no one from WUM has contacted us by phone or email.”
In an emailed response to Iaderosa and the county, Water Utility Management President Mark Smith V said Water Utility Management’s rates are similar to Richmond Hill’s for similar usage, “The average family of four uses 10,000 gallons per month,” the email said. “The calculation for $10,000 gallons of consumption at the current rates are $53.30 for Richmond Hill and $55 for Water Utility Management.”
“We operate on an eight-week billing cycle, so our customers receive bills for two months of consumption. This would obviously be a higher bill than the City of Richmond Hill residents who are billed monthly,” the email continued. “This can create the misconception that our rates are significantly higher.”
It also said, “One difference in our rate structure is that we charge a higher base rate that includes 6,000 gallons of consumption and the City of Richmond Hill charges a lower base rate, but charges for every gallon used. We charge about the same rate for the middle tiers but move to a more aggressive rate for our high consumption users in an effort to promote conservation.”
The company said it charges a base rate of $43 per month for up to 6,000 gallons per month, then adds increasingly higher charges for additional usage. It claims Richmond Hill charges a base rate of $20.50 for no usage, and charges $3.20 per thousand gallons used per month up to 6,000 gallons before it increases its charges, according to WUM’s calculations.
In an example provided by WUM, it said it would charge someone who used 44,000 gallons in two months $210, while the city would charge a customer $197.80 for the same amount over the same time period.
And, WUM’s email said about 80 percent of its customers in Bryan used less than 30,000 gallons per month in two months, while more than 70 percent used less than 44,000 gallons per month.
The company’s email also noted it’s rates and its ability to pump water are impacted by its EPD withdrawal permit.
“The City of Richmond Hill, Bryan County, and Water Utility Management all have a fixed amount of water on our State of Georgia withdrawal permits ...” the email said. “The State of Georgia requires that we have an active campaign to encourage water conservation and that we employ conservation pricing in our rate structure to discourage excessive water use. This can be verified on page 4 of the attached permit. Conservation will allow water resources to be available for Bryan County in the future. The City of Richmond Hill, Bryan County and Water Utility Management will be challenged to provide water for all the anticipated growth in Bryan County in the future.”
Iadorosa’s email to Bryan County and state officials said the company, “is not responsible to any governmental agency for price setting. WUM owns the individual water systems; hence, they can set whatever rates they please. In terms of water quality compliance, yes, they must adhere to EPD rules.”
It also said, “Residents of south Bryan County really would like some answers from WUM and support from you, our elected officials and government staff, to bring them into line and be held accountable for their problematic price gouging. How can government, citizens, and water utility work together to form a public-private partnership or legislation that keeps water pricing in line, understandable, explainable,and within parameters understood and acceptable to all?”
Water Utility Management’s reply to Iaderosa’s email ended by saying, “We hope this information helps you understand your water rates. If you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.”
More on this story to come, including a look at how Bryan County charges its water customers.
Download PDF Response from Water Utility Management
Email from Jean Iaderosa to county:
Date: July 20, 2020
To: Ben Taylor, County Administrator, Bryan County, GA
Carter Infinger, Noah Covington, Wade Price, Steve Myers, Brad Brookshire, Gene Wallace, Bryan County Board of Commissioners
Jesse Petrea, Georgia State House of Representatives
Ben Watson, GA State Senate
From: Jean Iaderosa, Resident, Bryan County
Re: Water Utility Management (WUM), Local Water Company, Has a Monopoly on Water Systems and Pricing
We are writing to express concern on behalf of fellow residents of south Bryan County who are surprised and concerned at the exorbitant amounts they are being charged by Water Utility Management (WUM), our water provider, that is not responsible to any governmental agency for price setting. WUM owns the individual water systems; hence, they can set whatever rates they please. In terms of water quality compliance, yes, they must adhere to EPD rules. In response to a Twitter message to them this week on this theme, one of their employees stated, "We actually work very closely with the GA Environmental Protection Division, our rate structures are influenced by water conservation efforts and the GA EPD. We are a private water and wastewater operator, but we do remain compliant and in good standing with policies and state regulations." And the pricing?
To give you some background, WUM's website states that they are a private company that serves "26,000 households from the following counties: Brantley, Bryan, Bulloch, Camden, Chatham, Coffee, Effingham, Glynn, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Pierce, Ware, and Wayne." We first became aware that my neighbors in south Bryan were also aghast at the WUM serendipitously-appearing high charges through the Nextdoor newsfeed. https://nextdoor.com/news_feed/ On Nextdoor, people are complaining about outrageous charges that appear without foundation. They have documented situations such as: water usage goes from base to 82,000 gallons in one billing period; documenting doubling and tripling of water usage and associated charges; low water pressure -- especially of concern for fire hydrants. One resident states that her regular bill is $88. The most recent one was $1330. The list goes on. As homeowners, home renters, and residents of Bryan County, we want some accountability from WUM. And yet, it appears WUM alleges that high costs are due to rate increases, homeowners having leaks or recommendations to residents to photograph meter readings to forward to them.
Residents of south Bryan County really would like some answers from WUM and support from you, our elected officials and government staff, to bring them into line and be held accountable for their problematic price gouging. How can government, citizens, and water utility work together to form a public-private partnership or legislation that keeps water pricing in line, understandable, explainable, and within parameters understood and acceptable to all?
And finally, be reminded that WUM price gouging is a central theme in the posts on the Nextdoor news feed. There, the residents' words echo these refrains: "My water bill is 2 - 5 times more than normal and we haven't increased our usage." Or, "I spoke with Customer Service at WUM and they provided no assistance or explanation." We all must not tolerate these scenarios. We look to WUM, our fellow residents, our county administrators, and county and state elected officials to join in ameliorating this prickly conundrum. Leonardi daVinci (1452-1519) said, "Water is the driving force of all nature." This is so true ... the human body is composed of up to 60% water; 71% of the earth's surface is covered by water. We humans and our fellow sentient beings cannot live without water.
How will you work to rectify this situation? We look forward to your responses and action initiatives.
Jean L. Iaderosa, Concerned Resident