The story I’m about to tell does not quite match the one two years ago about Stella and Savely Goreshter, the Van Nuys condo dwellers who lived in dread after receiving a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power bill for $51,649.32.
But it ain’t bad.
Mrs. Velma Matthews, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Northridge with her dog, Precious, says her bills from the LADWP usually run in the $500 range every two-month billing period.
But in July, she got one on steroids.
It came to $12,836.31, and DWP included a notice along with the bill. If she didn’t pay up, her service could be cut off.
“You know, I was in shock,” Mrs. Matthews told me Tuesday afternoon at her ranch-style home.
The bill didn’t make the least bit of sense to her, because she had turned off her faucets during the drought.
“My front yard is dead, my back yard is dead, my trees are dying and I’m just one person living here with my dog,” said Mrs. Matthews.
She said she called DWP and was put on hold.
“It seems like forever when you’re so angry,” she added.
Then, she says, she got bounced around to several agents who served up different guesses as to what was going on. Maybe there was an error, or maybe she had a leak. They’d look into it.
So much for that.
In September, she got another surprise from DWP. This time the damage came to $16,988.62.
“That was the one that put me in the ER,” Mrs. Matthews said.
And she’s not kidding, which is proof positive that the long-troubled DWP billing system can be hazardous to your health.
As noted in Mrs. Matthews’ handwritten chronology of DWP events, which she penned on a manila folder containing her bills, her blood pressure was 230 over 152.
The medical emergency was abated, but Mrs. Matthews — whose story was first reported last week by KCBS — says her nerves are still rattled.
“I’m 74 years old and it’s been very, very stressful. I couldn’t sleep at night and I thought, ‘How in the world am I going to pay a bill like this?’”
When she got the first whopper of a bill, Mrs. Matthews hired a plumber to see if she had a leak.
“He went all over the whole property with one of those electronic things; I don’t know what it’s called. But he said, ‘Mrs. Matthews, you have no leaks.’ He looked outside the house, he looked inside the house, and he said, ‘If you have to go to court, I’ll go to court with you because this is just ridiculous.’”
A junky new billing system that cost $181 million and screwed up thousands of bills led to a $44-million class action lawsuit settlement, but delays have pushed paybacks to customers into next year. Mrs. Matthews was unaware of all that, but got hold of Consumer Watchdog, which has worked with a San Diego law firm that has its own set of agitated DWP customers.
Lawyer Tim Blood, who took up her case, said he still gets complaints at the rate of about “one or two or three a day,” with a recent uptick. Some of the complaints are from people who say they’ve been overcharged, and some are from people who were undercharged for months and then got socked with a catch-up bill they didn’t expect and can’t afford.
“DWP says, ‘Trust us, you owe it,’” said Blood, and customers fear that if they don’t pay up, they’ll be audited or have their service disconnected.
Meanwhile, a DWP “reform” measure is on the November ballot. It’s a complicated, watered-down proposal with some good points and bad, and the L.A. Times editorial board gave it lukewarm support, essentially calling it a flawed step in the right direction. But critics say if it’s approved, there will be less outside oversight of the all-powerful and often-mismanaged agency than there is currently.
“It would give DWP the ability to raise rates and enter into contracts without the approval of the City Council and mayor,” said Jamie Court of Consumer Watchdog. “Ratepayers have long complained that the DWP feels like a Soviet bureaucracy, and the measure would remove even Politburo control.”
Mrs. Matthews, for one, believes the measure would allow DWP to police itself, and she said there’s no way she’s voting for it.
DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo said based on a visit to Mrs. Matthews’ house last Friday and a review of her account, it was determined there was a DWP snafu.
“This was not a problem with the billings system, but rather a human error,” Ramallo said in an email to me, claiming there was indeed a leak on the property.
But he did not say where the leak was, whether it was repaired and who will be responsible for the cost.
“Our billing system caught the high use and began estimating her bills,” he said, adding that DWP “did not follow through with the remaining steps to investigate the cause [of the leak] as it should have.”
“Estimates,” as I’ve noted before, drive ratepayers crazy. They don’t trust them, and Mrs. Matthews sure doesn’t. When I studied her last two bills, I saw that her sewer charges went from $218.48 to $1,306.61. When I pointed out the sharp increase, it seemed to spike her blood pressure up again.
“I don’t go to the bathroom that often,” she fumed.
Nor does she believe there’s a leak on her property. How did her plumber miss it, and where would all that water have gone?
Her September bill charged her for 954 hundred cubic feet of water, which comes to 713,592 gallons. That is nearly 12,000 gallons a day. The whole street would have floated away on a gusher like that, said Mrs. Matthews, and yet everything on her property and nearby is bone dry.
It’s another DWP mystery, waiting to be solved. And if Mrs. Matthews’ account isn’t fixed in the next billing, the least DWP could do is pay for her ride to the hospital.