NORFOLK, Va. - Imagine getting your water bill and it's double, nearly triple, what you pay each month.
That has been the new reality for a lot of Norfolk residents who said they feel blindsided by their recent water bill.
"It's been six months, and it hasn't been taken care of," said Noell Cook.
Noell Cook has lived in her apartment for close to two-and-a-half years and said she typically pays between $50 and $60 monthly for water. However, over the summer she said her bill doubled to $130. At the same time she received that bill, she said her upstairs neighbors were hit with a whopping $800 bill.
"When they started, like, trying to shut the meter off for their apartment, they noticed that it didn't shut their water off, it shut my water off for the meter that they were being billed for," Cook said. "The entire time that I've lived here, the bill that I've been receiving every month was for the usage for the upstairs apartment and vice versa."
When they realized this, Noell reached out to the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) who bills customers and Norfolk's Public Utilities who reads the meters. She said she was told that only a supervisor could make the adjustment.
In the meantime, she said the accounts have been put on hold and she's been offered a payment plan until it's sorted out. However, each month the balance still increases.
"[My reaction is] complete panic because $800 for a monthly bill is -- that's more than I pay for rent here," Cook said.
Then on Facebook one day, she stumbled upon a post where someone else in the Ghent area said their water bill was close to $350.
The comments flowed in, including one from Michael Phillips. He said his bill from January was "about three times as much as it normally is."
The bill tallied a total of $264.82 and it came after, records show, he was not charged for two water cycles.
When Phillips asked about the inconsistency, he said, "they said, well, maybe there's something wrong with the meter, we'll send someone else to come and look at it. And they'll let you know. I never heard anything back about it."
The city said they don't leave door tags for routine meter readings, but if a customer requests they double check a meter, crews are supposed to leave a door tag to verify the reading.
Phillips said he never received a notice.
So News 3 reached out to the city for answers. When we asked about recent billing complaints, they said in a statement:
Our customer service center receives calls every day. We are transparent in our billing. If at any point a customer feels they’ve been billed incorrectly, they can call 757-664-6700. We will send a mechanic out to verify that the meter is working and being read correctly, and that there are no leaks on the city-owned portion of the water line.
A spokesperson also said "water utilities and their contractors across the country are experiencing staffing shortages due to the pandemic. The staffing shortage affects how often we can read meters."
The city reports there are some 70,000 meters across the city.
"I mean, I completely understand if they don't check the meters every month. I'm okay with that. I would just like them to confirm that that's the case. Rather than, you know, a random, huge bill," said Phillips. "You just don't want to get hit with a blindside.
The Department of Utilities confirmed to News 3 that the reading frequency has changed. They said "billing cycles that were once 28 to 32 days may increase to as long as 37 to 39 days due to the staffing shortage."
"I just want them to do their job. You know, I'm not trying to make a huge stink out of anything, but it's a hassle and it seems, you know, unnecessary," Cook said.
After our questions, they said they will be looking into both Noell and Michael's issues.
Leaks and running water can be the cause of high water bills, both customers said that's not the case here.
When we asked the city for advice to tell customers, they said:
Read your bill carefully. Call when you have questions. Visit our website [norfolk.gov] for more information on how to read your bill [norfolk.gov]. We’re glad to hear that some customers are checking their homes for leaks, as this is often the cause of higher-than-normal bills. Our website offers tips for leak detection [norfolk.gov] as well.
If you feel you have been billed incorrectly you can call 757-664-6700 and request a mechanic go to your home to verify the meter is working and there aren't leaks on the city-owned portion of the line.
If you have a consumer tip or story that you want the News 3 Problem Solvers to look into, we want to hear from you. Email us at: email@example.com.