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Utility Companies Allowed to Guess On Your Bill

Senior Attorney Mike Smalz on Channel 10 News discussing the problems with utility submetering.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio lawmakers say they’re restarting efforts Tuesday to keep utility bills under control.

Apartment residents often pay their water and power bills to third-party companies. But when that meter breaks, it’s often the customer who pays big.

The sound of rushing water isn’t heard often in Dennis Baker’s Reynoldsburg apartment. He only lives here four days a week for his job. Baker was surprised when his bills these past months showed he used more than 3,000 gallons per month. That’s around what a family of three uses.

“I guess it’s not against the law to charge 3,800 gallons when you use 800, and you get a bill for it,” Baker said, “You have to pay it. There’s nothing – I have no – I called you because I don’t know what else to do.”

10 Investigates looked at Baker’s meter and found a broken wire at the unit inside his apartment. Outside, there is a sensor used by utility workers to scan for the latest reading.

10 Investigates contacted Baker’s utility company, Conservice. It’s a “sub-meter” company, hired by an apartment complex to manage utilities. They told 10 Investigates on the phone that Baker’s meter is broken.

When a meter is broken, Conservice guesses what a person’s water use is. They take the entire complex’s water use, and divide it by a number that can include the complex’s landscaping and swimming pool. You can often tell if your bill uses this guesswork if there’s an asterisk near the number of gallons used admitting it’s a utility estimate.

Michael Smalz with the Ohio Poverty Law Center explained, “It’s all over the map. In some cases, tenants don’t even know what the formula is, or if there is a formula but they get this mysterious bill.”

A bill designed to change this situation stalled in the Ohio State House of Representatives with the death of co-sponsor Terry Blair. Co-sponsor Mike Foley wrote us this statement: “I have discussed the possibility with members across the aisle who have expressed interest in solving this problem, and I think there is a general frustration from some we didn’t get this done sooner.”

Baker’s utility company says they have no plans to fix his broken meter. His apartment complex says they now plan to fix the broken part of Baker’s meter within a month.

 

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