COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Tiffany Putnam is a mother of two and lives in a small home in Columbia. She doesn't use a large amount of water each day, only the typical household water usage for laundry, washing dishes, and taking showers. She says her water bill is usually $25 to $30 each month.
So she was shocked when she received a bill in the mail from Columbia Water this past July 19th, for nearly $4,000.
Knowing something wasn't right, she didn't pay the bill. Instead, she called the Columbia Water Department's Customer Service hotline.
Putnam says it was no use. She says she was constantly shuffled from one department to the next, with no resolution for the bill.
"[Operators said], 'You need to speak with our maintenance guy,' or 'You need to speak with our supervisors.' We called customer service day in and day out," Putnam said.
It didn't stop the utility from turning off her water Sept. 26 for non-payment.
That's when Putnam emailed us to describe the situation and asked for help. We posted her bill online and promised to look into the billing dispute. Our post got an immediate response from Columbia Water. The utility posted a press release in the comments, confirming Putnam's story, and calling the situation "unacceptable." They also noted her service was restored Sept. 27 once the utility finally confirmed there was a problem, eight weeks after Putnam first called.
We reached out to Columbia Water to get further clarification on the billing error and to find out how this happened. The Assistant City Manager overseeing the utility, Clint Shealy, agreed to provide an explanation. Shealy has served as the head of Columbia Water since July.
"We adjusted the customer's bill to zero consumption so that person received a minimal bill for that month," Shealy said. "That is in no way an excuse for what happened, and in no way makes up for the pain and suffering they experienced and the frustration they experienced."
We asked why it took 2 months to figure out the utility had sent out an incorrect bill.
"At Columbia Water, we are dedicated to being transparent and operating with integrity and accountability," Shealy said. "That's why the moment we noticed the post on Facebook we wanted to reply. It wasn't comfortable to say, 'Hey we made a mistake.' But we're gonna own these things and admit when we do make mistakes. We committed to getting better."
So how much water would it take to generate a $4,000 bill?
"Just a tremendous amount. Thousands and thousands and thousands of gallons," Shealy said. "So it doesn't pass the test of 'Okay, this makes sense.' That's why it's flagged."
Shealy says the utility has a new system that will flag unusually high bills for investigation. In this case, Shealy says a tech was dispatched to Tiffany Putnam's house to investigate, but couldn't get an accurate reading.
"There was a meter malfunction, so we didn't come back with a reading verifying that usage was correct or incorrect. That's where the system broke down" Shealy said.
Under normal circumstances, Shealy says the tech will find a discrepancy, report the correct numbers, and a new bill will be issued. But he admits in this case, things only got worse.
"The technician did report there was an issue with the meter," Shealy said. "We went out, and we dispatched another crew. They went out and changed out that meter. Then we ended up in a loop where we were trying to verify that meter reading for a meter that was no longer installed."
Shealy went on to describe a situation where the utility scrambled to find the discarded meter, as Putnam's bill remained past due.
"So that meter that was pulled out, and goes to the scrap pile, and is recycled," Shealy said. "And so we entered a work order find the meter in the scrap pile, let's look at it, and see it had been recycled by the time we looked for it. And things got dropped."
Shealy said the utility is committed to working toward improving their service, including implementing new policies on billing disputes and water shut-offs. He says in similar billing disputes where a problem is clearly identified, the account will be placed on hold, and the water service will not be shut off as the investigation plays out. In the interim, the utility will send out "average" water bills.
He also said the utility is working toward fully automating it's billing to reduce human error, a process Shealy says will take approximately 3 years to complete. Other reforms include developing an app, where water customers may soon be able to track their daily usage online. Right now, water customers can use a billing estimator on the utility's website.
Despite having the massive bill waived, and the issue resolved, Putnam is skeptical. She says she is still upset she was charged $119 to get her water turned back on. But now, she keeps her own tally of her water usage on a clipboard, checking her new meter every day, for her own peace of mind.
She hopes she never has to go through this again, while Shealy is confident she won't have to.
"We want to put our customer service first," Shealy said. "That's part of our reorganization, and part of transparency. When something like this happens, own up to it and communicate to our customers these things happen. We make mistakes. But we're doing everything we can to get our business processes better and accountable so that we are not repeating these mistakes over and over again."