INVESTIGATION | Water customers billed for water not used

Complaint process cloaked in secrecy

CLEVELAND -

Cleveland water customers are complaining they’re being billed thousands of dollars for water they never used while a complaint process remains cloaked in secrecy.

An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation reviewed Cleveland Division of Water records and found 44,096 customers received shut off notices last year.

Even so, a Water Review Board created through a federal court order to ensure complaints involving disputed bills and shut off notices are heard convened for only 31 cases last year.

Even more revealing, the Water Review Board denied 22 of 31 complaints.

Our investigation found the board that ultimately decides customer complaints is comprised of City of Cleveland water and electric company managers—with no independent members.

In addition, the complaint process is cloaked in secrecy.

We found water customers attempting to dispute enormous bills for water they did not use have no idea that a review board even exists.

There is no mention of the Water Review Board process on the Cleveland Division of Water website, nothing contained in billing information and no information readily available describing the process at the department’s customer service lobby.

Plus, undercover video inquiring about the complaint process found the review board was either not mentioned at all by a customer service representative or the complaint form had to be specifically requested—with no information about the process.

We also  found 130 customers have also filed complaints involving the Cleveland Division of Water with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office since 2013.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said while the office cannot legally file lawsuits against a city operated water company, it can intervene on behalf of customers by contacting water officials to resolve complaints.

DeWine also encouraged water customers to file complaints online or contact his consumer complaint help line at 800-282-0515.

Our investigation found one water customer who was billed for water that never even went through a meter—the bill was instead “estimated” at 10 times the normal usage level. 

After we questioned this bill—it was forgiven.

The department acknowledged that it had bypassed the meter and instead ran a hose to the customer’s business while a water line was being repaired.

In another case, an 82-year-old stroke victim, who is bedridden and earns just $800 a month, was being billed $3,816 for water she never used.

The Water Review Board heard the case but ruled the woman—who faces a shut off notice—is required to pay up.

Cleveland Division of Water declined to be interviewed but instead issued a statement that stated: “If a customer does not pay their water bill, the cost incurred to produce and deliver water is, ultimately, shifted to other customers.”

“We attempt to balance the cost recovery needs of Cleveland Water with the unique circumstances that can sometimes cause customers to miss payments by offering, when appropriate, extended payment plan options."

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