Cleveland Division of Water avoids questions over billing tactics, turns to social media

Posted at 6:54 PM, Dec 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-21 18:54:49-05

It is imperative to a true democracy that we have open governments serving the community in every facet, whether it be our mayors, law enforcement, utilities, as well as any other public organization. These community leaders are not only paid by your taxpayer dollars to serve and protect you, but are also embedded in our society to be transparent about their inner workings and how their decisions impact you.

It is also crucial that they tell you the truth.

Recently, the Cleveland Division of Water turned to social media after avoiding direct questions over billing tactics. The utility penned two posts on its website’s “Straight from the Tap” blog, as well as shared them on its Twitter and Facebook accounts, that contain inaccuracies about News 5’s reporting regarding how the water department handles customer service and uses tax liens. 

The posts also contained erroneous information regarding the utility’s own policies, tactics and treatment of its customers, claiming that the company would “set the facts straight.”

But these posts did the opposite, and instead, clouded the truth. For the sake of public safety and the community we serve, it is important that these false claims are addressed and corrected:

1. Without naming News 5 directly, a Dec. 20 post stated that a local media outlet had “inaccurately” reported information recently regarding the utility company’s use of tax liens. 

This is false. On Dec. 14, a News 5 investigation uncovered that nearly 8,000 water tax liens have been filed by the Cleveland Division of Water from 2013 to 2015. The total number of liens has increased each year. It’s a practice that places thousands of Cleveland Water customers at risk of losing their homes. Some of those customers have spoken about their plight in our news reports.

2. In the same post, the utility also claimed that although the company does utilize tax liens to collect delinquent taxes, “we do so only as a last resort when a customer does not pay their bill.” They added that the tax lien process is their “last line of defense to collect from property owners,” and stated that in many instances, these homeowners have abandoned properties, “helping create blight in our communities.” 

Our investigation found this is false. Water customers we have spoken to have told us they have pleaded with the water company for answers as to why their bills are excessively high and have received no satisfactory answers. They have also reported they were never told water tax liens were placed on their homes. These are customers who reached out to the water department for help regarding questionable bills, but did not receive it.

3. The Cleveland Water department also stated in the Dec. 20 post that they “…take multiple steps to work with customers to keep balances from becoming delinquent, and still more steps to help resolve the issue if a customer does fall behind in their payment.” To that same token, in a Dec. 21 post, the water department touted what it says to be “decreased estimated bills, improved billing timeliness and accuracy, and our dramatically improved call center performance.” They also say their customer service team “…is ready to work with every customer to avoid water service interruptions.”

Customer service representatives at the water department are supposed to help customers understand their bills and offer solutions on questionable and/or inaccurate billing, but we learned that in many cases this does not happen. Documents show that in 2015 alone, the water department issued 40,000 shutoff notices to customers. In addition, at least 16,000 water customers have complained about their bills directly to the water department in just a one-year period. In one case we reviewed, a 74-year-old woman had to resort to suing the city for an excessive bill of $30,000 -- a lawsuit which, after three years, the city settled. Internal disciplinary records obtained by News 5 Investigators also show repeated egregious behavior by customer service representatives, including hanging up on customers. A 2016 J.D. Power customer service satisfaction study shows Cleveland Water was ranked second to last in the nation for customer service.

4. The utility uses the recently published posts to make the case that it is not “overly aggressive” with the use of tax liens and does not target some of its most at-risk customers.

This is inaccurate, and our investigation revealed the water department's tactics are, in fact, unnecessarily aggressive. We found the number of tax liens placed on properties has quadrupled over the last three years, and nearly 8,000 people in that timeframe have had liens placed on their properties. In one recent example, a disabled 85-year-old customer reached out to us for help after she received a $10,000 water and sewer bill, despite not using that much water. She showed us a letter she received from the Cleveland Water Department that stated she must pay within 30 days, or else the utility would place a tax lien on her home, leading to the common risk of foreclosure if she does not pay.

5. In a past investigation, News 5 has reported that the water department’s water review board hearing process is shrouded in secrecy. In the water department’s Dec. 21 blog post, the Cleveland Water Department claims this is false and that “Every customer who may be eligible is notified in writing of their possible right to a hearing.”

This is incorrect. Our investigation found customers who had no idea they had a right to a water review board hearing to dispute their bills. The dispute process is not outlined in either quarterly bills, on the water department’s website or in plain sight at the water department’s customer service lobby. In fact, a News 5 undercover producer directly asked a customer service representative about options to dispute bills, and the water review board process was never mentioned. This crucial hearing, which you have a right to as a Cleveland water customer, is very much, in fact, shrouded in secrecy.

6. In the Dec. 21 post, the water department stated: “When someone unfairly attacks the quality of our service, we feel obligated to set the facts straight.”

It is important to note that News 5 is not the only entity that has questioned the water department’s tactics and treatment of its customers. We have reported on the J.D. Power customer satisfaction study that found dismal performance by the Cleveland Division of Water, and respected Cleveland religious leaders are now questioning how customers are being treated.

Throughout our year-long investigation, we have also made repeated requests to the Cleveland Water Department for interviews, which they have declined.

It is dangerous that a public entity paid for by taxpayer dollars is disseminating inaccuracies and misleading information about our reporting – and their own policies – on multiple platforms. We will continue to advocate for our community and vigorously work to expose the systemic issues plaguing the Cleveland Water Department that enables it to treat its customers unfairly.

Join us for a 30-minute News 5 special investigation, “Drowning in Dysfunction,” Thursday, Dec. 22 at 6 p.m.