Concerns continue over high water bills in Columbia

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Columbia Water customers continue to reach out to WIS over what they say are outrageous fees for water they did not use.

On Thursday, the city responded saying it has a new program in place to solve these issues. The Customer Advocate Program was developed in July of last year after WIS received multiple complaints about unexpected, high water bills that could not be explained.

Columbia resident Ron Porter says he's been living here for 36 years, paying about $40 a month for water.

"Then in September, the bills went from three units of water to almost 36 units of water," Porter said.

He received a bill for more than $200 - which Ron paid before contacting the city.

After a leak assessment was done, it was determined there was, in fact, a leak that Ron would be responsible for finding. He paid for the plumber out of pocket and was issued yet another high water bill.

"The supervisor told me he would put a hold on my bill– not to pay anything at that point – but, yes, at that point including the plumber it would have been over $600," Porter said.

It's because of the high volume of concerns from customers like Porter that the Customer Advocate Program was created in July of 2017.

"We want to make sure that our customers know we will investigate any concern about a water bill," Customer Care Administrator Angela Adams said. "If a customer has a unique situation – something that they can't explain – when the bill starts to change, the advocate will come out. They're trained. They specialize in trying to look for things that may have caused the change."

But some customers like Austin and Tabitha, say they didn't exactly feel like the city was on their side. Not long ago, their normally $30 water bill was more than $600!

"It's just us two. We have one bathroom," Tabitha Golunbek explained.

"The customer is in a better position to answer that question than city staff. We read the meter once per month. So, we're only at your property once per month for billing. Any activity that occurs in between that may affect the bill, again, the customer is in a better position to answer that question," Angela Adams said.

The city has plans to replace all of the aging water meters with new Advanced Metering Infrastructure technology, or AMI, but they stand by all meters currently in use.

"It is the trusted device to measure water that passes through from the city side to the customer side but we have a testing process and it will determine whether the meter is functioning according to standard. So, a broken meter will tell us if it's broken," Angela Adams said. "The functionality of the meter is it's not going to record anything that doesn't pass through."

In Ron's case, it was determined higher bills were the result of faulty equipment. Austin and Tabitha were offered 50 percent off. They had to pay more than $300 to avoid a shutoff. They say, since then their bills have returned to normal.

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