SAN DIEGO — A homeowner in San Carlos says the City of San Diego failed to send him his water bill for nearly a year and when it finally did, it was for more than $11,000.
"$11,136 for a water bill. My jaw went to the floor when I read that," said Dr. Eric Einstein.
It was only after calling the department that he discovered that the city had set his bill aside to investigate what several months late turned out to be a 3,000-gallon-a-day underground leak on his property.
However, instead of notifying Einstein of a potential leak on his property, the city's Public Utilities Department held on to the bill in order to investigate whether it was a mistake or not. That investigation, according to bills obtained by CBS 8 and a statement from the city, lasted nearly a year. During that time, the leak continued without Einstein having any clue.
"How am I supposed to pay this? Why did nobody tell me that I was using this much water? Oh my gosh, that is a lot of water wasted," said Einstein.
Einstein says the last water bill he received was in August last year.
"I'm sitting there wondering why I'm not getting bills," he says.
He tried to contact the city but says he couldn't get in touch with anyone.
In May of this year, after wondering why a bill hadn't come, Einstein took matters into his own hands and inspected his underground irrigation lines. That's when he discovered that an underground pipe burst and he was jettisoning thousands of gallons a day.
"I was averaging 3,000 gallons of water a day! 3,000 gallons of water getting dumped! Yeah, the bill sucks, but I'm baffled by all that water wasted in a drought state. This all could have been prevented," said Einstein.
CBS 8 contacted the city about Einstein's bill.
The following day, the City of San Diego Water Department checked Dr. Einstein’s water meter and told him it is reading correctly, meaning the homeowner is responsible for the bill.
Einstein put in a leak adjustment request because it failed to notify him when they first flagged the bill in hopes it would adjust the charges.
He isn't the only customer CBS 8 has seen with billing issues.
In February, CBS 8 talked with a Birdland man who received 10 months of water bills in the span of just two days. That same month a Scripps Ranch woman said she received six months of bills after a three-month delay in getting billed. And, in Linda Vista, another couple told CBS 8 they owed $7,000 after not receiving a bill in the mail for months.
In February, a city spokesperson confirmed that the Public Utilities Department withholds bills when there are discrepancies.
“It is essential that water/wastewater bills are accurate," said the spokesperson in February. "That is why when a discrepancy appears, the bills are held from release to customers until the issue can be investigated and correction can be made. Due to staffing challenges, the Public Utilities Department cannot investigate each account immediately. Multiple bills may be released when another billing period passes before an investigation and resolution are complete.
Unfortunately for Einstein, it appears the situation inside the Public Utilities Department is unchanged.
In a statement about Einstein's bill, a city spokesperson wrote,
"Our records indicate Mr. Einstein's bills were held in our billing system due to higher than normal consumption during the billing period ending 09/30/22 to billing period ending 06/01/23. Staff investigated the multiple higher-than-normal meter reads and determined that they were accurate. Following the investigation, the held bills were released and a letter was sent to Mr. Einstein explaining the delayed bills on Aug. 8, 2023."
The city spokesperson said that a customer service worker at the water department told Einstein that they discovered abnormal water usage in August of last year, lasting through May.
CBS 8 then asked the city if it ever informs residents about potential leaks on their property if abnormal usage is discovered.
The spokesperson tells CBS 8 that internal staffing shortages prevent the department from contacting customers after a potential leak is discovered.
"The Public Utilities Department’s process is to notify a customer via phone, email or letter before releasing multiple bills. Due to staffing challenges, the Public Utilities Department is, unfortunately, unable to investigate each account immediately. More information for customers, including how to read your meter, requesting a meter read and submitting a meter read, can be found at: www.sandiego.gov/public-utilities/customer-service/billing/water-meter-read
As for what residents such as Einstein can do if they received an abnormally high bill, the spokesperson says,
"We are always willing to work with our customers. We understand phone and email response times are long but encourage customers to reach out if they haven’t received a bill. Any customer who did not timely receive their water utility bill and had a leak during that billing period, can contact the Public Utilities Department at 619-515-3500 and request an adjustment. General information about leak adjustments can be found at: www.sandiego.gov/public-utilities/customer-service/billing/adjustments
And while the answers fill certain holes as to what happened, Einstein says change needs to happen to prevent this from happening to others and at the same time averting massive wastes of water due to underground leaks.
"Something needs to be done at the water department for this to be allowed to happen," said Einstein.
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