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You could lose your home because of a water bill, but there's a new fight against those liens

Woman fights against liens being placed on Ohio homes because of water bills
Posted at 6:29 PM, Apr 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-06 19:54:07-04

COLUMBUS, Ohio — There are new developments in Columbus as state lawmakers consider a bill that could change what happens to charges for water. Currently, if you don’t pay or you can’t afford to pay a water bill, a lien can be placed on your property here in Ohio. That lien can lead to foreclosure and you losing the home.

However, after significant News 5 reporting, some lawmakers have introduced a bill they hope brings changes those liens.

“These entities cannot just put liens on people’s home they’ve worked so hard for,” said Jackie McFarquhar. We’ve followed her fight for years now against the Cleveland Water Department. This week, we followed her to Columbus for a Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee hearing.

“My mom was bed-ridden for 20 something years…she bathed out of a pan,” explained McFarquhar. “There’s no way she could have used that much water!" she told the senators.

Her mother Barbara was a stroke victim and somehow racked up nearly $10,000 in water-related bills starting back in 2014.

McFarquhar testified that the problems started right after a Smart Meter was installed in her parents’ home. She told the senators she contacted a company called Itron which was hired by Cleveland Water to install those meters. Jackie says a rep from Itron said a lot of times the meters were not calibrated correctly.

“So, instead of it being a…point-1 or .001, it ends up being a 1.00. Which is a significant difference in dollar amount,” McFarquhar told the committee.

It’s a similar scenario News 5 Investigators uncovered 5 years ago, a scenario that has now led to a hefty water lien on her parents’ old home.

“We have to address the issue in a more humane way,” said State Senator Sandra Williams from Cleveland. “And cutting somebody’s water off and selling their home because they can’t afford to pay their water bill, to me, is not humane.”

That’s why Sen. Williams introduced Senate Bill 193 that would ban water bill liens on people’s properties in Ohio.

Water bill liens are also a focus of a recent federal lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund against Cleveland Water. It’s a suit that reports there were 11,000 water liens placed on properties by Cleveland Water just between 2014-2018.

“Outrageous, outrageous. So, I was happy to have the opportunity to just come and testify and hopefully this just helps someone else,” said McFarquhar.

News 5 Investigators found in just 2021 alone, the city of Cleveland has paid nearly $1.4 million to the Tucker Ellis Law Firm to defend allegations of unfair billing.

“And if you look at the NAACP lawsuit, you will find that most of the liens that are being placed are being placed in low income, minority communities,” said Sen. Williams.

News 5 Investigators contacted both Cleveland Water and Itron about the senate bill and issues with smart meters. Neither went on camera to answer questions. Statements from Iton and Cleveland Water are below.

That won’t stop McFarquhar and her mission to have water liens addressed in the state of Ohio.

“Had I not been fighting for my parents, they would have lost their home in foreclosure as well over an erroneous water bill,” she told us.

Meanwhile, the Ohio Environmental Council gave written testimony about SB 193. It said in part, by the end of this year “more than a third of all households across the nation will not be able to pay their water bill…(and) the last thing that a family needs is for a water bill crisis to turn into the loss of a home.”

Here’s what we heard from Itron:

“Thank you for your inquiry. We recommend you reach out to the Cleveland Water Department on these topics.”

Cleveland Water:

“Between 2012 and 2017 Cleveland Water and its contractors installed over 400,000 upgraded water meters as part of our automatic meter reading (AMR or “smart meter”) project. AMR has proven to be an extremely successful investment. The upgraded system allows every customer to view their water consumption on an hourly basis, essentially in real-time. The AMR system has had a transformative effect on customer service and has translated to into more accurate and timely bills.

" As with any project of this scope, there were issues surrounding connectivity and logistics. Those matters were handled expeditiously and accurately with the overall impact being tremendously positive for Cleveland Water’s customers.

"As reported by Channel 5 on this matter, the crux of this customer’s issue was a significant water leak inside the property. Her lawsuit was dismissed by the Court of Commons Pleas on August 31, 2021.”

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