Trickle-down behavior at water company

About this time last year, I wrote about the misadventures of Escott Norton, a Glendale resident who was charged $5,471 in one billing period because Glendale Water and Power claimed his family had used more than 1.5 million gallons of water per day.

For those who have trouble visualizing the absurdity of that sort of usage, it is the equivalent of filling six 4,000-gallon tanker trucks of water every day for 60 days.

While Glendale Water and Power eventually released Norton from this ridiculous bill after a months-long battle, they did so without ever admitting the bill, or their meter, was in error.

At exactly the same time as I was documenting Norton's struggles with Glendale Water and Power, I was experiencing my own issues. I had forgotten to pay my utility bill, and as a result my water was shut off.

The fact our water was shut off on a Friday afternoon with no way to get it turned on over the weekend was not something I took issue with at the time. Nor did I publicly vent my dislike of the policy demanding a whopping $850 security deposit in order to turn the water back on. Nor did I comment on how much I hated the fact that Glendale Water and Power said it would only return the deposit after we had made 12 months of payments on time. If we were late, the 12-month security deposit hold would begin anew.

That last contingency felt curiously one-sided. The conspiracy theorist in me wondered what would prevent Glendale Water and Power from holding on to my check for a few days without cashing it so they could assert their right to keep my deposit. I guess the utility's five-year strategic plan to improve customer service would prevent that, right?

Like I said, I was in the midst of covering Norton's story and didn't want my own odyssey to taint what I was reporting. So I bit my lip for nearly a full year. But since Oct. 15 marks the one-year anniversary of my security deposit earning interest for the utility, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share my observations on the matter.

Since Glendale Water and Power bills bi-monthly, customers receive six bills per year. Inexplicably, I only received three. Had I not been monitoring the situation, I might not have noticed the missing bill, missed my payment and been out of luck as far as getting my deposit back. I checked around online to see what percentage of U.S. mail is either lost or undelivered. While the U.S. Postal Service does not provide a concrete statistic for this, the general consensus is 3% to 5%.

While I can't prove any negligence or wrongdoing, much like Norton couldn't prove either when he was grossly overcharged, I find it remarkable that 50% of my bills never arrived. With a number that far out of the norm for undelivered mail, one might conclude either: Glendale Water and Power's billing system is flawed, the utility was trying to trip me up in order to keep my security deposit, or the Postal Service just hates delivering Glendale Water and Power bills. By the way, over this same period, not one other bill of mine went undelivered. Go figure.

So why bring this up now? Well for starters, I want my $850 back on Friday and I don't want any funny stuff from Glendale Water and Power claiming I didn't pay any of my bills on time, because I did.

More importantly, I bring this up at a time when Glendale Water and Power is trying to raise rates, partially as a result of millions in lost revenues during mandatory conservation. Utility officials have been saying the "average residential family" (using 1,900 cubic feet of water in a month) will only pay about $2.50 more per month for water.

That's a nice friendly number, until you go from average to specific. For me personally, my bill would be about $10 more per month during pool season and $5 during the rest of the year β€” so that would be about $80 more per year.

Consider the fact that 24,547 payment extensions were granted by Glendale Water and Power last fiscal year β€” a 5% increase compared with the fiscal year ending in 2009, and a 21% increase to the previous year, according to a report earlier this year.

That's about one extension for every three of the utility's 80,000 customers. So just how does Glendale Water and Power expect its customer base to pay more when one-third of them are struggling to keep up with existing rates?

This rate hike, like security deposits and other policies of Glendale Water and Power, feels like classic playground bully tactics β€” where the hefty utility company steamrolls the tiny consumer.

Ironically, there's a trickle-down behavior occurring here. Glendale Water and Power officials have been trying to get the California Department of Water Resources to pay $2.5 million it pledged for a chromium 6 removal project.

Maybe utility officials ought to get the money from the bigger state agency before trying to shake it out of our little wallets. If it can't get the money, Glendale Water and Power ought to do what it did to me. Shut the water off to state buildings on Friday afternoon, and demand $2.5 million as a security deposit before turning it back on!

Of course, to be fair, I would advise the state to watch the mail closely. It doesn't want to be late on a payment and have that security deposit held unfairly.

GARY HUERTA is a Glendale resident and author. He is senior manager of communications for DIRECTV and a copywriting professor at Pasadena Art Center College of Design. Gary may be reached at garyrhuerta@gmail.com.

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