Have You Received an Incorrect Water Bill? You’re Not Alone.

NOLA Water meter cover

Whether you’re liberal or conservative, old or young, a Canes or Popeyes fan, there is one thing that everyone in New Orleans can agree on: our Sewerage and Water Board sucks. 

And it seems like they just keep getting worse. 

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, bills have increased dramatically. 

The department’s executive director Ghassan Korban explained that this was because his agency had been hit hard by the pandemic since they were unable to work remotely and there were initially a lot of positive cases on the staff. 

He set a goal of reading 80% of meters by the end of the year but the agency was only averaging about 30% during the beginning of the pandemic and 50% now. The meters they couldn’t read resulted in estimated bills. 

The downside of estimated bills? 

They are typically much higher than what customers normally pay. Even Korban acknowledged, “Estimates are the wrong way to do business.” 

Relying so heavily on estimated bills has resulted in the S&WB sending grossly incorrect estimates to a large portion of their customers. 

One New Orleans resident, Karen Gros, had high water bills all of last year but was able to organize a hearing that resulted in her large balance being removed. Following the hearing, it seemed like things had been fixed because she was receiving normal bills around $100, until gradually, each month her bills became higher and higher. Her current bill is $260 a month despite the fact that she lives alone and has no garden. 

She explained, “I complained, and they said they sent someone out who didn’t find an issue and that I needed to get a plumbing inspection to prove them wrong. All my bills show an “actual” reading, but I purposely put leaves and mulch over my cover to monitor use and it never moves. Last week I saw a meter reader who looked at someone’s meter, then walked past the rest of them, including mine. I pay $111 a month just to keep them content: now my balance is $756 with $56 of late fees. I’m so frustrated”

Another New Orleans resident Sean McGuire explained that every month since moving to uptown his family of four’s bills were around $100. However, the month after his son left for college they jumped to $200. He contacted the S&WB who said that they would conduct an investigation. They determined that their bills were correct and notified McGuire that he owed them around $500. Since then, his bills have been in the $200 range, probably because the S&WB continues to rely on faulty estimates that are double his actual water usage. 

The S&WB’s inaccurate billing extends far past charging customers hundreds more than they should be due to incorrect estimates. A trend has emerged of the S&WB sending out bills in the thousands to customers who for some reason have to fight tooth and nail to get them to actually admit the obviously wrong bills are incorrect. 

One egregious example is Tami LaGraize who recently received a bill for $3,000 that has yet to be resolved. Obviously, LeGraize was not using 6,000 gallons of water a day since that would be impossible, and there were no leaks found on her property. Despite the panic and frustration LeGraize has had to deal with in proving that the obvious faulty bill is incorrect, the S&WB has been extremely unhelpful in resolving the matter. 

Similarly, Rachel Scullion received a $4,000 bill from the S&WB, which she “actually laughed out loud and then had a panic attack” about when she opened it. She filed a dispute with the website and for a couple of months paid her normal bill amount, $87, and waited. Despite how ludicrous the bill was, Rachel received a letter back from the S&WB which said that they investigated the matter and found that “the bill is correct.” It took reaching out to her city council member multiple times, until finally, through the help of his constituent service staffer, she was able to rid herself of the insanely high bill. 

Once she did, she found they overcharged her on her next statement to a lesser degree. She explained, “I tried calling and explained that they overcharged me and that my usage and reading were supposed to be the same since I started at zero, but the person I spoke with kept insisting that since it was an estimate, it didn’t matter. I asked to speak with a supervisor and they never called. I gave up and just paid it because $28 isn’t worth the fight I just went through. I guess I could’ve called Robert Jackson again, but it just felt petty. It makes me wonder how often they overcharge people $30 or so dollars and get away with it just because they can.”

One of the highest bills that have been reported from the S&WB was Elle Stacker’s bill for $22,000. The long-drawn-out process and complete lack of communication from the S&WB on the fraudulent bill have left Stacker fearful about its effects on her credit score and the potential that she may have to pay part of the sizable bill. 

Councilman Joe Giarrusso commented, “The two patterns we’re seeing are bills that are egregiously wrong on their face, in the thousands of dollars. And then these bills that are estimates for more than 40 days…Why can’t the estimate be closer to 30 days to start? By pushing people into a (billing cycle of more than) 30 days you’re actually pushing them into paying more money because they’re using more water.”

The issue Giarusso is addressing is that customers keep getting bills covering more than a 30-day cycle, which shows them then using more than 3,000 gallons of water, which bumps them into a higher usage tier. Water used above 3,000 gallons is charged at a 70% higher rate than it is at a lower tier. Therefore, because the S&WB has been late on sending bills, customers are having to pay more. 

Customers have made their unhappiness with inaccurate bills known. The S&WB had 1,480 billing disputes in June, the most since last October. 

Because of the onslaught of disputes, which they are clearly incapable of handling, the S&WB has advised customers to pay “an amount consistent with past use” while it attempts to hire more meter readers. 

Incorrect bills, and rates that have continued to rise over the last 8 years due to the city needing to reconstruct faulty water delivery systems, have resulted in high water costs. 

The increase in costs had lead to an increase in applicants seeking assistance from a municipal program that helps people pay water bills, from 80 applicants a month five years ago, to 250 a month this year. In May, more than 30% of the S&WB’s roughly 136,000 customers were behind on their bills. 

Obviously, the S&WB is struggling due to the pandemic, every business is. But every business doesn’t have the same effect on New Orleans residents as the S&WB. Every business isn’t adding to residents’ burden so they not only have to deal with a recession and a pandemic but also ludicrously high water bills. 

Plus it would be ignorant to assert that the S&WB’s functioning has really been that affected by the pandemic. They aren’t an agency that just suddenly became incompetent because of COVID, they’ve always been spectacularly, notably poorly-run.  

The mistakes of the S&WB are not water under the bridge, they have real, negative effects on New Orleans residents and the New Orleans economy as a whole, causing citizens to flush hard-earned money down the drain. 


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