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Van Nuys couple's $51,649.32 DWP horror story

The DWP charges a Van Nuys couple $51,649.32, and good luck contacting anyone to investigate

Mr. Goreshter gesticulates, snarls and paces in his Van Nuys condo.

Mrs. Goreshter sits in a silent, fixed state of dread.

"My parents are terrified," says the retired couple's daughter, Felicia.

The beast that can not be tamed — the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power — is figuratively at their door, demanding money. Lots of money. The Goreshters, who immigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1989, harbor an old-world fear that everything they own will be lost.

Their horror story began early in 2014, when the Goreshters — he was an X-ray technician and she was a piano teacher — realized that they weren't receiving their bills from the giant utility. Mr. Goreshter called to ask what was up, but couldn't get much of an explanation.

So no bill through the spring, summer or early fall. Not until October rolled around did they find a bill in their mailbox, and they figured they would have a little catching up to do, given the DWP's incompetence. But nothing could have prepared them for the number they saw when they opened the envelope.

The charge for water alone — not electricity, or sewage — was $51,649.32.

"They're Europeans," says their daughter. "They don't even shower every day."

If I got such a bill, I'd laugh it off, fold it into an airplane and let it sail. But to Savely and Stella Goreshter, this was no laughing matter. To them, says Felicia, dealing with the DWP was like dealing with the mafia.

"My mother has high blood pressure and she's had two strokes" as well as surgery for a benign brain tumor, says Felicia. "Every time she sees a bill from DWP, she cries. She literally cries, and my dad just freaks out and goes into conniptions. They receive Social Security and they have their little condo, and that's all they have. They've been working hard their whole life and this is outrageous."

So was the crazy water bill yet another hiccup from the DWP's disastrous new $178-million billing system? One would assume as much, although at a utility where so much has gone wrong over the decades, it's hard to say.

The DWP wants to raise about $270 million a year to fix rotten pipes and cover its obligations, so maybe we'll all be getting $50,000 water bills.

Leslie Hurst and Tim Blood, whose law firm filed a class-action suit against the DWP, have no shortage of horror stories related to the billing mess. Hurst said the Goreshter case is one of the more outrageous she's seen, with the DWP promising an investigation that never seems to have occurred, to anyone's knowledge.

Meanwhile, the DWP has threatened the couple with a service shut-off, and the latest bill still claims a past due balance of $51,269.49.

It's one thing for a lousy computer system to spit out a ridiculous number. But it's another thing to have such horrible customer relations that a family gets strung out for months, with no clue what's going on or when someone might correct an obvious mistake.

Mr. Goreshter has called the DWP, an attorney has called, a rep from his condo board has called, his daughter Felicia has called, and all three Goreshters went to the DWP office to pay current charges and contest the past-due charges. All to no avail.

The Goreshters called a plumber who found no evidence of any leaks, and the couple insisted on giving me a tour of their condo, so I could verify there are no active geysers.

Mrs. Goreshter wanted to show me her tiny cactus garden on a small balcony off the bedroom. Yeah, cactus. It's not like they are growing cotton and alfalfa.

If they had a $51,000 leak, they wouldn't be living in a condo, they would be living in an ark. But when they visited the DWP office, says Felicia, a clerk actually told them a leaky toilet could explain the hefty water bill.

A leaky toilet.

Let's do a little math, shall we?

One hundred cubic feet (HCF) of water equals 748 gallons, and the DWP says the Goreshters used 8,938 HCFs during the several months that they were not billed.

That's nearly 6.7 million gallons of water, or enough to flood half the San Fernando Valley.

It's possible, of course, to have underground leaks on pipes delivering water to homes. But if that much water was lost, every house on the Goreshters' block would be on pontoons and residents wouldn't be able to get to Ralphs without a raft.

Felicia says she called the DWP for an update and was told, "I don't see anything about an investigation, so please contact the field investigator's office."

This is where she gets animated. "You try to contact them, and nothing. Crickets. The field investigator is like the Wizard of Oz. It's a special place no one can ever get to. You can call until you're blue in the face and no one will ever call you back."

I do have some good news involving another frustrated ratepayer. Tanisha Miles, who has been contesting a $9,000 bill at the home of her 90-year-old grandfather in South Los Angeles, got a call from the DWP after I mentioned her in my Sunday column. The utility offered to subtract $8,000 from the bill.

Miles was relieved but peeved that she didn't get anywhere at the DWP without the help of a columnist and an attorney, and she's been working overtime for months to pay down the bill and keep the service connected. Her attorney, Tim Blood, also had mixed feelings.

"It is great they are adjusting Ms. Miles' bill. The problem is that thousands of people have been overcharged," Blood said.

Sharon Grove, the DWP's director of customer experience — that's the official title, folks, and I don't think it's intentionally ironic — told me that 98% of the new DWP bills are on time and accurate, but the backlog of disputed bills is "in the thousands."

So good luck if you're one of them.

As for the Goreshters, the director of customer experience told me that an investigator would be sent to their home Wednesday.

It's about time.

And unless it turns out that the Van Nuys expatriates have quietly filled an underground lake to putter around in their secret submarine, I think their DWP nightmare may be about to end.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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