Caught in Water-Billing Hell: Jackson Citizens Seek Justice for Enormous Bills | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Caught in Water-Billing Hell: Jackson Citizens Seek Justice for Enormous Bills

Barbara Tadley wants the water to her hotel turned back on for her to start receiving guests again after shutting down in June 2020. Photo by Kayode Crown

Barbara Tadley wants the water to her hotel turned back on for her to start receiving guests again after shutting down in June 2020. Photo by Kayode Crown

Barbara Tadley, 61, is on the verge of complete financial ruin. She invested her savings into getting the lease for Hotel O on Ellis Avenue in Jackson, but after the City cut off her water in May 2020 and the business's consequent shuttering, she has a $150,000 bill that she has no way of paying. She plans to file for business bankruptcy after having the electricity to the business cut off on Jan. 14, 2021, because she could not pay the bill.

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Hotel O along Ellis Avenue is in a state of neglect with no money to run it after the City of Jackson cut off the water. Photo by Kayode Crown

All this trouble began, she says, when the City changed the old water meters to new ones under the now-cancelled Siemens contract, and she started getting astronomically high water bills. Tadley recalled that the first one she got after the meter change was $36,000. "And every time we’d go to the water department to discuss it with them, they would give us the run-around, they would tell us they'll (look) into it," she told the Jackson Free Press. "We never heard anything from them. We'd go back again, and it was the same story."

Eventually, a city employee told Tadley to continue paying the previous water bill until the municipal government could address the situation. "We had an agreement with the City that I'll keep paying every two months the same bill that I have been paying prior to the new water meter until they made other arrangements or found out what the problem was," Tadley said.

This ordeal began, as she can recall, in 2016. "We were down there three, four, five times a year trying to get this worked out, and we never got it worked out," she said. City officials kept telling her that the cause of the increased bill was a leak. She brought in plumbers to check, but they discovered nothing like that.

"Within the last year (May 2020) I went, I paid $1,500 on the water bill because I had to make three $500 payments," Tadley said. "And then the next day, (they) cut my water off." The City blamed her for the high water bill, saying she had a leak and then cut off her water, purportedly to stop the bill from continuing to pile up.

"They shut the water (with the result that) we didn't have any water pressure at all. I kept getting plumbers in here thinking they can fix the problem, and they couldn't, so I shut a business down (on) June the first because we could not get the problem solved," she added. "They were telling me that (the big bill) was my fault, (that) I had a major water leak. We have not found a water leak. None of the plumbers (found) a water leak."

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Barbara Tadley received this water bill from the City of Jackson saying she owes nearly $200,000 in water bill as of May 2020. She disputes this, claiming the new meter installed by Siemens led to erroneous bills. Photo courtesy Barbara Tadley

The last statement Tadley got in May 2020 showed her indebtedness to the tune of $191,841.25. "The outstanding big bill just kept jumping up, and they weren't holding to their end of the bargain, no matter how many times (we) were in there constantly complaining (sending) letters to the City,” she said.

Tadley showed this reporter her correspondence with Director of Public Works Charles Williams. She wrote to him on July 29, 2020. "Mr. Williams, I'm still waiting on a statement from you stating that I have a problem and the city is working on it. This is urgent that I receive a statement asap,” she wrote then.

Williams replied the same day: "We understand that the property is experiencing low water pressure due to a possible leak or meter issue. We are still investigating the matter and hope to have it resolved shortly."

Filing An Affidavit

In February 2020, Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba announced a $90-million settlement with Siemens Industry Inc. for faulty water-meter installation.

The City had accused Siemens of fraud in a suit filed in June 2019, saying the corporation had promised $120 million in savings with new water improvements including meters but had cost the City an estimated $2 million per month and $20 million in 2018.

”This case involves a massive fraud orchestrated by Siemens under the guise of an energy performance contract promising $120 million in guaranteed savings for the City," the city alleged. "More than half of the 60,000 water meters were installed incorrectly, causing delays in the project and chronic, ongoing problems with accurately measuring and billing for water usage by the City's customers."

"The billing system has caused many customers to receive inexplicably high bills that do not reflect their actual water usage," it added. "In other instances, customers may receive no bill based on months of purported water usage."

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Attorney Philip Hearn is leading the charge against the City of Jackson in Hinds County Chancery Court. He wants Jacksonians to benefit from the $90-million Siemens settlement. Photo courtesy Philip Hearn

In June, led by Attorney Philip Hearn, some Jackson residents sought reprieve from that $90-million Siemens settlement and against continuing to pay high water bills based on no fault of theirs, they alleged. In September, Tadley joined in the lawsuit.

"I respectfully present to you a major problem beginning when the new meters were installed by the City of Jackson. After the new water meters were installed, our water bill spiked from an average of $293.94 every two months to $36,000," Tadley said in her affidavit. She relayed her interactions with the City, which claimed that her problem was because she had water leaks on her property.

Calling The City To Order

Hearn said that he is not seeing the eventual settlement translating to financial remedy for the years-long unjust bills to the people. "I saw the settlement with the city for $90 million, and after months there's not been any announcement of a refund of any of that money to the citizens of Jackson, the ones who (are) getting their water turned off because they have a system that doesn't work," he said to the Jackson Free Press.

"You've got people on a fixed income; they're making $700 a month (and) paying $50 a month in water bills for 15 years. And all of a sudden, now they've got to pay $50 a month, plus another $150 a month to keep their water and to pay off some balance that the City knows is inaccurate," he added.

Belinda Chase, Charles Jordan and Poindexter After-School Club, the plaintiffs in the civil case against the City, complained of thousands of dollars in unexplainable water bills.

"Account holder Belinda Chaise has an unexplainable account balance of over $9,000. Ms. Chase's water bill spiked to over $9000.00 after having been less than $100 monthly over many years," the complaint says. "When Ms. Chase complained to the city, she was told that she had a water leak; however, a plumber was not able to find any leak whatsoever."

"She now pays $180 a month over and above her normal usage to pay off the unexplainable account balance that she received."

Jordan's story is similar. After paying $25 in monthly bills for years, he got an "unexplainable" balance of $4,100 after installing the new water meter, the lawsuit claimed.

"Mr. Jordan was forced to pay $1100 to have his water service restored and now pays an extra $83.00 a month to pay off the balance," the suit alleged. "Plaintiffs are also aware of the individual account holders who had unexplainable billing balances and water services disconnected and who have been forced to enter into large monthly payments to pay off false, inaccurate and/or inflected water usage balances."

Hearns told the Jackson Free Press that he seeks a moratorium on all water disconnections.

"The City will tell you that they're not disconnecting water, but they are; Barbara Tadley's water is disconnected," Hearn said. "Her hotel was shut down, her life's work, her dream, every dime she's got, she put into that hotel. And it's closed because they turned off the water."

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At Hotel O in Ellis Avenue, water trickles at the reception office. The water running there is not enough to run the business. Photo by Kayode Crown

"I want the City to provide either accurate water billing or stop billing people. I mean, it's just not right to bill people, poor people, working people, elderly people, people on fixed incomes, people on disability, to bill them when the city knows that the bills are inaccurate, that the system doesn't work," he added.

The attorney said that he wants a system where people, like his clients, stop paying extra monthly to keep their water on and can get some money back into their pocket. "The City got paid, but the citizens of Jackson, the ones who have suffered, (are not) given a dime out of it. It was just not right," he said.

The attorney said that he started getting calls from the citizens about seeking a remedy for humongous water bills after the Siemen's settlement.

"People started calling me (and saying), 'the City's getting all these monies, what am I getting?'" he said. "What we hope is that eventually, the chancellor will see the unfairness of this settlement and the unfairness to the citizens of Jackson."

"[J]udge (Tiffany Grove) announced (after a hearing on Dec. 14) that she was taking the matter under advisement and that she would render a decision in the coming weeks," Hearns added.

Court Grants City’s Dismissal Request

Then-Jackson City Attorney Timothy Howard declined to comment on the lawsuit in an email dated Jan. 14. In a response to the suit that he filed in July 2020, he argued that the three plaintiffs did not avail themselves of the administrative provision for redress; therefore, the court should dismiss the case.

"None of the three Plaintiffs have exhausted their administrative remedies prior to seeking judicial relief," the City declared. "As a matter of law, all three of these Plaintiffs are required to exhaust their administrative remedies with the City of Jackson."

"Without exhausting their administrative remedies, this Court is without jurisdiction to grant equitable relief to the Plaintiffs. Consequently, this Court must dismiss the Complaint without prejudice."

The mayor gave notice of Howard’s resignation in a Feb. 5 statement. “Tim has been an integral part of this administration over the last four years,” he said.

The Jackson Free Press filed a public-records request to find out what the administrative remedy entails. The response stated: “Final Notice Letters are sent to customers with delinquent balances advising that they have 14 days to contact the Water Sewer Billing Administration Manager (WSBS) directly to schedule an Administrative Hearing to dispute charges on their water sewer bill and prevent service disruption.”

In his answer to the government's assertions, Hearn said in October that there is no way for plaintiffs to know there was even such an administrative provision.

"First, the City has consistently failed to make the administrative appeal process transparent to its ratepayers, reflecting its procedural inadequacy to the point where it is functionally unavailable to the ratepayers," the plaintiffs replied in a legal response in October. "Second, the administrative review process is clearly inadequate to the massive number of accounts that have been mishandled under the Siemens contract, as has been pled in the complaint."

Hearn told the Jackson Free Press that based on his experience, the administrative process is ineffective. "I've represented one person on the administrative appeal of a water bill, 18 months later, I don't have any resolution whatsoever, so you believe that the City's administrative process can handle 20,000 people complaining about their bill? It's nonsense."

In her affidavit, Tadley said she was not aware of such an administrative process to air her grievances with the water bill.

"Despite dealing with literally dozens of City of Jackson employees, not once was I advised of an administrative hearing process or right of appeal," she said. "Until the commencement of this litigation and the City of Jackson disclosures in its motion for summary judgment, I have never had an official notification by the city that such a process was even available."

Nevertheless, in a Feb. 3 judgment, the Hinds County Chancery Court agreed with the City of Jackson that it does not have jurisdiction to hear the case and dismissed the requests. Hearn said on Feb. 6 that he was going to appeal.

"Clearly, the Complaint in this action is an improper attempt to create an equitable class action suit to obtain injunctive and other relief. Accordingly, this court lacks jurisdiction to entertain the same," Chancellor Grove said in the written response.

"The proper avenue for Plaintiffs include an exhaustion of all administrative remedies and, if necessary, an appeal of the final decision to the proper court," she added. "[P]articipants should not be allowed to seek court intervention upon failing to be diligent and exhaust all such administrative remedies."

Packing Up And Moving

"This is the first year that I have been here that I'm having to borrow from friends and stuff to pay what I can pay just to stay open until we get through with the courts," Tadley said on Jan. 9.

"I don't know what else to do; I'm at my wit's end. That's why I went to the attorney to get somebody, to get something done somewhere, or I'm just going to have to fold up and leave. I'm at the age that there's not a whole lot of people going to hire me right now."

After having electricity cut off from the property on Jan. 14, Tadley called U-Haul to carry her stuff, as she had decided to leave Jackson. "I'm going to have to file bankruptcy because I don't have any business, and I can't make it here. And I'm going too deep in the hole," she said.

Email story tips to city/county reporter Kayode Crown at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @kayodecrown.

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