Sergio Lopez walked out of Sewerage & Water Board headquarters on St. Joseph Street in New Orleans on Tuesday holding a receipt for the $800 he had just paid to settle his water bill.
Lopez is still convinced the bill was a mistake. It was 10 times larger than normal, and he said there is no way his brand-new house could be leaking enough water to cause the spike — the explanation he got from officials.
He paid the bill anyway.
After an eight-month moratorium, utility officials have been warning that they would resume their normal collections process on delinquent water bills beginning Wednesday, shutting off water to customers who are more than 60 days past due and owe more than $50.
In all, the agency says there are more than 17,000 delinquent accounts, amounting to about $21.8 million in unpaid bills. It warned the City Council last week that as a result, the utility's cash reserve is running low, threatening vital projects.
So a day ahead of the moratorium lifting, there was a steady stream of customers like Lopez, either settling up or trying to convince the agency that their bill is wrong.
"We have to pay for their mistakes," Lopez said. "Good luck dealing with these people. It’s like a black hole."
Like Lopez, many of those standing in line Tuesday said they still think their bills are bogus — officials have acknowledged widespread problems implementing new billing software — but didn’t want to risk losing water service.
Cassandra Carmouche said she’s been “battling these people for months and months” but was told she had to pay off her $1,600 bill or be considered delinquent. She said she could hardly afford the typical $90 monthly charge.
“How can they cut off water when people need water every day?” she asked.
Customers on the delinquent list are supposed to be notified by letters sent out two weeks before the account can have its service cut.
The S&WB has not said how many of those letters have already gone out or when, leaving unclear how many delinquent customers are under imminent threat of having their water shut off.
It's also not clear when crews will begin heading out to actually turn off water to homes and businesses.
S&WB spokeswoman D’Seante Parks could not say Wednesday when the first customer would be shut off, though she said the utility will focus first on the customers that owe the most.
Several thousand other customers who are still officially disputing their bills are not considered delinquent and will not be shut off, the agency has said.
Among those who turned up Tuesday to lodge a new complaint was Cynthia Scott, who said she’s been fighting with the S&WB over her bills for six months.
She said she has continued to pay the typical amount she had been charged before her bill spiked but that she still got a letter warning her that she needed to pay up or be at risk of losing water.
Rather than pay, Scott said, she asked that her account be put back under investigation, though she said previous disputes had been dismissed by the S&WB despite bills over $1,000 a month and assurances from a plumber she hired that the problem was with the meter and not her home's pipes.
Scott said that with all the problems with the billing system, the S&WB should “wipe the slate clean” rather than penalize residents. But instead of dealing with the problems, she said, it seems they just “want to see who will bite and pay.”
Antonia Cassara said she hasn’t received a S&WB bill since January, when she transferred the account on her childhood home from her late father’s name to her own, and she wanted to make sure they weren’t planning to turn off her water.
That would make her one of 9,000 customers who are still waiting to receive their first bill.
The utility has offered a payment plan for those who can’t afford their entire bill. But even that requires a 25 percent down payment, with the rest of the balance to be paid over the next six to nine months.
Darlene Leavell went to the S&WB’s office hoping for a little flexibility after learning that she would have to pay $500 upfront, more than she could afford before Wednesday’s deadline. Like many others, she said her bill was much higher than it should have been and a plumber she hired confirmed that the problem was with the meter, and not with leaky pipes on her property.
But after waiting for a while in line, Leavell had to leave before she was summoned to talk to a staff member.
“I just need a two-week extension until my paycheck,” she said. “I just hope they don’t cut my water off tomorrow.”