An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation has uncovered $1 million in spending by the Cleveland Water Department to advertise and promote itself through expensive sponsorships, trinkets and even zoo animals getting bathed.
Our review of spending found Cleveland Water customers help pay for events and sponsorships that ranged from the annual Winterfest Celebration to bike races that cost $150,000 from January 2016 through July 2017.
The spending affects ratepayers in 79 communities surrounding Cleveland. It comes amid growing customer outrage over billing practices, including the utility's tactic of threatening homeowners with foreclosure by slapping tax liens on more than 13,000 homes over the last five years.
That's what happened to Cleveland Water customer Mark Stewart.
His home, with no leaks, was billed thousands for water he never used. Now, more there are more than $50,000 in penalties and interest on his tax bill.
"What's at risk is losing a property that I've invested and took some of my life savings to secure," Steward said. "Frivolous spending that's not in the best interest...we're the customer, and they're supposed to help and serve us."
Sponsorship agreements with the Cleveland Metroparks resulted in $45,000 in spending that included zoo animals being bathed with special credit to the Cleveland Division of Water on the Metropark Zoo Facebook page.
We also found another $136,000 in spending over the same time period for give-a-ways and trinkets such as coffee mugs, water bottles, back packs and even toothbrushes.
In its newly prepared budget for 2018, the Cleveland Water Department plans to spend another $400,000 in advertising and promotion -- despite no competition -- and brought in $30 million more in revenue in the last three years.
Since 2016, that will mean Cleveland ratepayers have helped the water department polish its image to the tune of more than $1 million.
We asked Public Utility Director Robert Davis to explain the spending, but he declined.
Instead, his office issued this statement describing the spending as critical:
At Cleveland Water, we believe that public education and outreach activities are a critical component of providing quality service to the more than 1.4 million people who count on us. The various community events, sponsorships, and promotional activities we participate in help us raise awareness about how water fits into daily life and about various programs and services we offer. As we do with all of our operations, we work hard to control costs associated with public education and outreach, and, in recent years, we spent less than one-tenth of one percent of our total operating budget to support these important educational activities.
By comparison, a check with both Cincinnati and Columbus water departments found neither spends ratepayers money to promote itself.
We found customer satisfaction is so low with Cleveland Water that a recent JD Power customer satisfaction survey found the utility at the bottom of water companies across the country.
News 5 first uncovered Cleveland Water's promotional spending three years ago. At that time, Chief of Public Affairs Jason Wood said the advertising gives the utility the opportunity to create engagement.
“Drowning in Dysfunction” is the culmination of a year-long investigation by the On Your Side News 5 investigative team that began with the uncovering of thousands of customer complaints going unheard by the Cleveland Water Department – a department in which the federal government once stepped in to protect customers. As customers continue to be charged more than ever before with skyrocketing water rates, we question whether your rights are being violated. Our investigation reveals how the utility, which serves more than 1 million people in five counties and 79 communities, is “drowning in dysfunction.”