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California American Water Co. General Manager Eric Sabolsice said a recent spate of complaints about higher water bills is due to a recently-enacted five-tier rate structure designed to conserve water in the parched Monterey Peninsula — and not an attempt to gouge customers.
“We have no reason to attempt that,” Sabolsice said. “We believe that rate structure increases for tiers three, four and five are the sources for this issue. We’re looking at the complaints from every possible angle, and we’re not seeing leaks.”
In recent weeks, a flood of complaints about spiked water bills have beset Cal Am, a private company that supplies water to 39,000 customers on the Monterey Peninsula. Some of the complaints were lodged on the Internet or in letters to the editor of local media.
“I am writing you to let you know of my outrageous water bill I received from Cal Am,” a letter from Monterey resident Stacy Yacout read. “I was shocked when I learned I was being charged $165 this month when last month my bill was only $8. How could this be possible? I called the company and was told I must have a leak. I had a plumber in the very next day. No leaks.”
There were more. Another customer said his bill went from the normal monthly $26, to $304, while a Pebble Beach woman said she was stunned to see a $704 bill, when her normal monthly charge is around $150. Earlier this month, private inspectors went to the Pacific Grove home of the widow of famed 49ers football coach Bill Walsh after the coach’s son Craig complained about a $10,000 bill. No leak was found.
Ron Weitzman, activist with community water watchdog group WaterPlus, wrote a letter to Rob MacLean, president of Cal Am’s seven California districts, asking that the water spikes be looked into. He said he received from MacLean a denial that complaints this year were more numerous than last year, and that the spikes “were due to no new cause.”
“In my view, the Cal Am replies were merely boiler plate responses,” Weitzman said. “They did not take the WaterPlus request for an investigation seriously. I can only speculate as to why. The foremost reason I can offer is that Cal Am believed that what it did was all it had to do.”
Weitzman said currently Cal Am collects over $43 million annually from customers and proposed rate increases could generate $55 million per year.
“I had a rate spike of my own,” he said. “My water bill was $30 in June, $450 in July, and then $30 in August.”
Sabolsice agreed there had been an increase in customer complaints in the last few months over rate spikes.
“I wouldn’t want to guess a percentage of increase in complaints, but it has been significant,” he said. “Each of the complaints is being taken care of. We’re looking into each on a case-by-case basis.
We understand that some people are shocked when they see their bill,” he added. “If we can’t find the source of a leak, we offer the customer an ‘Unexplained Usage Adjustment’ in their bill.”
Sabolsice said mysterious increases in water usage by the customer can occur for any number of reasons, from a child leaving a hose running outside, to a toilet left running because its knob wasn’t jiggled.
“If you had your hose on and then turn it off, we have no way of tracking that down,” he said. “If you needed to jiggle your toilet handle, we have no way of reviewing that. We can read the water meter.”
The agency has a five-tier billing system in which the more over your allotment of water you go, the cost escalates.
“Let’s say you live by yourself in an apartment, and you’re assigned 15 units of water at each tier per month,” Sabolsice explained. “About 75 gallons of water. At the first tier you pay 30 cents, the second, 70 cents, the third, $1.40, the fourth, $2.80, and the fifth, $3.73. Anything in excess is in the fifth tier. You’ll see it on your bill.”
Sabolsice said the idea Cal Am is attempting to gouge customers so they can reap profits is ridiculous.
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