Apparently, it all began when our home was burglarized in 2017. The burglars’ take was pretty dismal: no cash, no drugs, no jewels.
For us, the financial pain was annoying, but below our high insurance deductible. The administrative pain was enormous and continues despite the fact that our identities were not stolen.
After we replaced the passwords, computer, credit cards, and changed bank accounts, we moved on with our lives. Until last month, when we inexplicably lost all water pressure.
Living in the foothills, our water pressure is frustratingly variable, so I ignored it until the evening. Then I encountered a pathetic dribble from the shower faucet, forcing me to realize something was wrong. We walked around outside in the dark listening for leaks. All was quiet.
We took army showers and went to bed hoping the problem would resolve itself. We’d been traveling frequently. Perhaps we missed a notice of a planned shutoff. In the past month we’d had numerous planned power outages, closed road for street resurfacing, and an evacuation for a helicoptered-in power pole replacement.
Between fire, flood, and recovery efforts, something’s always happening up here.
When we woke in the morning, we still had no water pressure. Daylight revealed no ponds forming at the low end of our property. We finally called the water hotline. That’s when we found out the water had been turned off for non-payment of our bill. Excuse me?
I’ll skip the details of multiple phone calls and my rush down to City Hall to pay. What we uncovered is the city’s policy is to “treat everyone the same” by turning off the water for the first missed bill (in 39 years).
When we unearthed the errant bill, received the week before our shut-off, it did not list any “past due charges.” The bill showed “Payment – Thank You” plus one anomaly “Administrative charges” neatly tucked into the list of “Current Charges due.”
Subsequently, we did find the definition of Administrative Charges in tiny print on the back of the bill: “returned check.” No warning, no big red letters, nothing indicating we were facing a shut-off.
The city apparently mailed a separate letter stating our water would be shut off if we didn’t pay within 10 days. We have yet to find that letter.
The city staff who helped us through this process were courteous. One contact conjectured a recent change in the billing process, software, or sub-contractor (can’t recall the wording) had rejected quite a few autopay customers who had had changes in bank information over the last couple of years.
We’ve been on autopay for decades, so we don’t focus on our bill’s amount due. Instead, we tear open the envelope to check on our water usage. We look to see whether we improved year over year for that month or for evidence of a leak.
It turns out that city still was using our old pre-burglary bank account number. Our bank honored it for 18 months before finally rejecting it.
I suggest the city “treats everyone the same” with a new policy that will save taxpayers and employees time, money, and the ire of residents.
For the first statement after a missed payment, send a bill stating,:“Past Due.” For extra effect, write PAST DUE and put it in red letters.
If it’s necessary to retain the policy of shutting off water before a second missed payment, use a form of communication other than the one that failed to attract the attention of the customer. Perhaps a phone call, text, notice on the front door.
These are all less expensive than sending out someone to shut off water and then returning to restore service.
The shut-off crew should knock first on the door. I believe I saw the truck outside, but assumed they were reading the meter.
If you get no answer and proceed to turn off the water, leave a notice at the front door to explain. If the homeowner understands the problem, a lot of anxiety and hours can be saved by all parties.
Just as I finished drafting this simple new policy, the water came back on. I took a shower in the middle of the day and enjoyed every minute of it. Mindful of the next bill, I still kept it to five minutes.
— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.