Getting hosed down: City offers 91-year-old retired CPS teacher a ‘payment plan’ for $57,000 water bill


CHICAGO (CBS)Getting Hosed was going to be a one-off story about a couple being charged $58,000 for water they didn’t use. Now that’s over two years of chronicling unfair and potentially illegal water billing practices in Chicago.

CBS 2 investigators have found that the city department whose taxpayer-funded responsibility is to provide safe and affordable drinking water has completely failed consumers and undermined our investigative efforts at every turn.

We’ve known for a long time that the city takes an apathetic approach to customer service, but until this story, we didn’t realize how indifferent it could be.

Targeting Chicago’s Most Vulnerable Population

Beatrice Ritchie spent 48 years as Mrs. Ritchie: a special education teacher in Chicago public schools. She has dedicated her life to Chicago’s most vulnerable. Now she is the most vulnerable: she suffers from dementia.

We interviewed her early today, when she’s still able to recount some of her greatest accomplishments, like being the second black speech pathologist in the city of Chicago.

But what brought us to Mrs. Ritchie wasn’t her impressive teaching background or her failing memory – it was her water bill, which of course she forgot.

The bill for his six Southside apartments is now nearly $60,000 for water that has never been used. In fact, the building has been condemned and vacant since its last tenant moved out in 2018.

The water is off

Russell Cochran is Beatrice’s son-in-law and now one of her primary caregivers. He fiercely fought this bill on his behalf.

And there is one thing he wants to clarify: “The water is off. The water is cut off in the street. The water is off in the building.

But it’s not Russell who makes that claim. he captured two separate Chicago Water Management Department employees verifying that the water was turned off on the property.

A fallible billing system

“I thought there was some kind of error, and we would reason with the city of Chicago and they would correct the error,” Russell said.

Figure again. Our series, Getting Hosed, proves that the bills don’t get paid until CBS 2 investigators step in.

Despite our nearly two years of exposing the City’s poor billing practices, the City told Russell that its system was “foolproof.”

We have heard the opposite.

“The systems don’t talk to each other and we have to solve this problem”, Alderman Gilbert Villegas told CBS 2 investigator Brad Edwards in February.

Aldus. Villegas, who previously called City Hall on Twitter in response to one of our inquiries, says he looked into the city’s fallible billing processes.

And he’s not the only city council member to have challenged Chicago’s regressive billing policies.

Aldermen Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and Daniel La Spata co-sponsored the recently introduced “Water for All Ordinance”.

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“A lot of times our offices are scratching their heads,” Ald said. Ramirez-Rosa.

The order follows the United Nations Residency Standard where you cannot pay more than three percent of your income on water.

But Chicago is far from that. One hundred and eighty thousand accounts are still unmetered, meaning their water usage is based on estimates rather than gallons actually consumed.

But as our reports have shown, measured accounts are also plagued with issues.

When a metered account receives an abnormally high bill, the City attributes this water consumption to a leak and generally refuses to explore other causes.

In cases like Ms. Ritchie’s, even when the landlord has a plumber verify that no leaks have occurred, the City will not change its mind.

Placing the burden on consumers

The real funder, however, is the city. Data we obtained from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources shows that its old infrastructure has leaked more than 67 billion gallons since 2016, which amounts to nearly $265.9 million according to water rates from Chicago.

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Who takes this tab? Chicagoans.

Despite promising to end the threat of water cuts in October 2019, since taking office, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has sent out 509,513 notices threatening to end water service to consumers if they don’t. not pay.

We asked Lightfoot’s office why they would be sending these notices — his office’s statement answered no questions.

Statement from the Spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office:

“One of the first actions taken by the Lightfoot administration was to end the practice of shutting off water due to a resident’s inability to pay as it strongly believes that every resident should have access to The city has historically relied on regressive collection activities that have harmed our low-income communities the most, and under the leadership of the mayor, we have taken steps to reform these policies of the past. As the City progresses in this effort, we remind all property owners that it is still their responsibility to pay their bills. For those who are late, residents may receive a 30-day, 60-day or 90 days asking them to comply Account holders who remain delinquent and non-compliant will continue to receive a monthly reminder notice, and the type of notice varies depending on the account holder’s position in the billing cycle. Anyone struggling to pay their utility debt is encouraged to visit the City’s website ll the Department of Finance at 312-744-4426 to work with the City to assess current debt and put their account compliance.”

Compounding this lack of transparency, requests for public registration we have submitted are often delayed for months, and when we receive them, critical information is almost entirely redacted.

Chicago Department of Water Management’s Month-Long Freedom of Information Act Request

A “solution” of the city

CBS 2 investigators have been asking questions about Ms. Ritchie’s property for months. The City, apparently dissatisfied with our two-year investigation, no longer answers our specific questions on billing.

Statement from the Spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office:

“The Department of Finance and the Department of Water Stewardship are committed to providing the best possible customer service to our residents. If you have a question regarding your utility bill, please call 312-744-4420. If you have a problem with your water service, please call 311. We have worked with this customer and their utility account before, and will follow up with them again regarding their account.”

Their solution? They offered to put Ms Ritchie, 91, on a payment plan. A plan that will cost him more than a thousand dollars a month and take him years to pay off.

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