Wednesday, July 13, 2005


This would NEVER happen in DC.

City charges woman for 10 million gallons of water

How things work in St. Louis: Want to know the difference between living in DC and the Midwest. This story is a good example. Rose Mary Cook of St. Louis got a water bill from the city for $74,000. Clearly an error as the bill claimed that she used 10 million gallons or water in just one month. She brought the issue to the attention of City Hall, which promptly looked into the matter and determined that, yes, it is pretty much impossible for a residential property to go through that much water in one month. They fixed her bill, her water meter and comped her water charges for the month. That seems like good survive to me.

Here's how that would work in DC. You'd go down to Judiciary Square to appeal the bill. You'd wait for about three hours to get to the counter (even though there would be ten people working and only two people in front of you in line). The lady behind the counter would be talking on her cell phone. She'd tell you that if that's what the water department says, then that's what you have to pay or absent that you have to pay the bill and then file your appeal. You ask where you can file an immediate appeal, as you don't have $74,000 laying around...She says you can't and you should just pay it, but eventually tells you that you can go to this other office down on South Capitol Street to appeal.

You head down to South Capitol Street to some God-forsaken city office that sits between a wig shop and a strip club. You enter and ask to speak to Bob or whomever the lady at the previous office told you to see. Bob is either 1) Dead, 2) on a month long vacation or 3) not seeing folks today. After much begging and pleading you get to talk to Elijah. You've been at this now for about 6 hours and much to your surprise, Elijah looks at the bill and says, "Gosh this is clearly wrong, let's see if I can fix it for you." You hopes rise. But Elijah is new, smart and his spirit has yet to be crushed by the lazy city workers who hate him for his youth and intelligence. Rachel refuses to let Elijah into the billing system to fix the issue. Elijah promises that he will do his best, that Bob will call you when he gets back from vacation. You ask what to do in the mean time, Elijah tells you to send a notarized letter to the department telling them that you are working with them to fix the situation...Send it return receipt he tells you. Of course Rachel starts waving her finger (which is somewhat hypnotic due to her long, beautiful manicured nails that give her a vague resemblance to the Empress Dowager) and says-as you slink out the door, "You should just pay it, 'cause they'll shut off your water." For some reason it doesn't dawn on Rachel or anyone else in the office, save Elijah, that $74,000 is a lot of money. Exasperated, you briefly consider going to the strip club until you see some muscular guys, in ass-less chaps, exit the facility.

It's two weeks later and you've followed Elijah's advice. You've sent a letter, notarized, certified and return receipt to who ever it was you were supposed to send it to. You've called Bob on a daily basis, but he's still off on his vacation. The city has turned your account over to a private collection agency that begins calling you on a hourly basis from about 5 AM to 1 AM each day. You've already pulled in your city councilman/woman to help you out. Everyone, except those with control over the billing system agrees that this is ridiculous, but the folks at the water department insist that nothing is wrong, and if it is, the proper procedure is to pay the bill, then continue through the regular appeals process...which usually takes a year.

Your water is shut off. You've made several visits to your City Councilman/woman, the Mayors Office and even an attorney. The water department refuses to budge. "You must follow our standard procedure to appeal your bill" they say. Finally, as your attempting to drown your rage, and the voices you've been hearing in your head for the last week at a local watering hole, a woman next to you at the bar overhears your muttering. She tells you she works for a the Post or a local news channel and would love to do a story on your plight. You agree as alas you've been beaten down so much that your only hope is the local news.

The story airs and suddenly the Mayor is at your doorstep with your city councilman/woman. The announce a new initiative to streamline the city's bureaucracy (which ironically requires the city to hire more workers and raise your property taxes). Your water is turned back on and over the next several months the water department provides various figures on what you really should have paid...they gradually get smaller..$10,000, $7,000, $3,500, $1200, $500, then back to the $42.77 that your water bill has been month in, month out for the last two years.

The years go by and your seething rage at the total incompetence of the city's operations slowly fades. You have a stellar career and look forward to a happy retirement in some tropical location, or perhaps Paris. You put your house of the market and you get an offer for $200,000 over asking price. At the closing you learn that the City has put a lean on your property for a unpaid water bill from 15 years ago in the amount of $75,000.

That my friends are how things work in this city.

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