I Fought The Water Department And …

... I'll let you know how it works out

Problem 1: Getting the water department to open my account.

This would, you’d assume (at least I did, because I’m hopelessly naive), be a simple matter. I would show up at the PWD’s office, write them a check, set up some sort of automatic withdrawal from my checking account (I am, admittedly, horrible at remembering to pay bills on time), and we’d be all set. Easy enough, right?

Hahaha. Right.

Last May, as I was about to enter into a new lease—in my only previous Philly apartment, the landlord covered the water, so I hadn’t had to bother with these folks before—I headed down to the Municipal Services Building, right there across JFK from City Hall, then down into the windowless herding room where city folk go to pay their bills and whatnot. And I waited. And waited. And waited. But, well, these things are to be expected, and I caught up on some reading-by-smartphone, so all was well.

And then, a good 45 minutes or so later, they called my number.

Here’s where things get weird.

I walked to the counter, signed lease—set to begin June 1, 2010—in hand. I had my new landlord’s contact info ready, in case there were any questions. Straightforward enough. Except: For the water department to turn on my water, I would need not just a copy of my lease, but also a copy of my electric bill from that address.

Let’s pause to consider. To open my water account, I have to have not just opened my electric account, but lived long enough in the residence—in which I don’t have a water account—for a month, or however the hell long it took PECO to shoot me a bill. (The logic of this escapes me: Does the water department really have a problem with lots of people signing up to fraudulently pay someone else’s water bill? If so, would it have been all that hard to call said previous tenant and get her to confirm that, yes, she is moving out at the end of May and, yes, she’d like the water department to turn off her account? But I digress. Onward.)

So, for this first month, how the hell was I supposed to shower? PWD had an acceptable answer: The previous tenant had yet to shut off her water account, so they’d just leave the water on. I’d get a month free. What a deal.

A couple months later, electric bill in hand, I repeated my exposition to the water department (and, of course, my wait). But in the end, my account was set up, my water was on, and all’s well that ends well, no?

Well, no.

Fast-forward six or so months, to the end of January 2011. My wife calls me at the office.

Her: “Hey, so we just got our bill from the water department.”

Me: “Oh yeah?”

Her: “It’s 270 dollars.”

Me: “Holyfuckingshitmotherfucker.”

Now, for the record, I live in a little rowhouse in East Falls. I don’t irrigate farmland. I (regrettably) don’t have a hot tub. My basement hasn’t flooded (recently, anyway). There is no way on God’s green earth my water bill should be that high.

So yes, I called. And after the goddamn horribleness of 25 minutes of goddamn hold music, I got a CSR on the line, who after a good 10 minutes of computer tinkering, was able to give me something that resembled a coherent answer: See, she explained, the department had, you know, forgotten to bill me these past seven months, and they’d just gotten around to sending someone out to check the water meter, so here was my bill for the last seven months, thank you very much. (OK, so I hadn’t seen monthly envelopes from the water department in my mailbox, but I’d a.) never really thought about it, and b.) assumed they were taking it out of my checking, like every other utility does. As you might have guessed, I’m not the kind of guy who scrutinizes my bank statement every month.)

The lady told me they could send me a more detailed statement, and then I could either pay or appeal based on what it said. (Still haven’t gotten that, by the way.) I said fine. Besides, a bit of quick math later (270 / 6 months = about $40 per month = acceptable), I’d already resigned myself to just writing them a check (or maybe spreading that $270 out over a couple of months) and being done with it. Que sera sera.

But then.

Last week, we got another water bill. $370.

Three hundred and seventy dollars.

Actually, to be fair, they still included the $270 from January—I hadn’t yet paid, as I was told to wait until I received the more detailed bill that has never actually materialized—plus another $100.

So: $100. For one month.

I called again. Twenty-five minutes of the goddamn horribleness of goddamn hold music later, I get a CSR on the phone. Hmm, he tells me. Seems last time they billed you for 232 days. This time they billed you for 209.

There are not 209 days in February, I point out. (I did not mention that the 23-day discrepancy in the two billing cycles should not account for a $170 difference.)

He agrees. I mention, again, that my house does not sit atop farmland that must be perpetually watered. I don’t even have a backyard garden, for Christ’s sake.

He runs through the same checklist I’d already been through a month ago: Had I changed the meter? No. Has there been a leak? No. Et cetera. And now, my CSR, nice as he is, is positively stumped. He asked if he can put me on hold while he talks to a manager.

Why the hell not.

Ten more minutes of the goddamn horribleness of goddamn hold music later (peppered by the equally annoying messages that tell me that everyone is busy, and they’ll get to me when my time comes), and he gets back on the line: Yes, there’s a problem. It’s not been referred to someone else, somewhere, and I’ll be getting a new bill in the mail.

How much will that bill be for?

I have no idea, he replies. I’m just customer service.

So now I wait—for the new bill, which may or may not be accurate, and may or may not necessitate another call and another 25 minutes on hold and another exercise in banging my head against a brick wall. I should find out soon enough; after all, I get some sort of penalty tacked on if my bill isn’t paid by the 17th.

But don’t worry, the CSR assures. They’ll have the new bill to you before then.

Stay tuned.