Drowning in dysfunction: How the Cleveland water dept. is failing its community, violating rights

“Drowning in Dysfunction” is the culmination of a year-long investigation by the On Your Side News 5 investigative team that began with the uncovering of repeated customer complaints going unheard by the Cleveland Water Department – a department in which the federal government once stepped in to protect customers. As customers continue to be charged more than ever before with skyrocketing water rates, we question whether your rights are being violated. Our investigation reveals how the utility, which serves more than 1 million people in five counties and 79 communities, is “drowning in dysfunction.”

WATCH our full 30-minute investigative special here.

Cleveland water customers spend nearly $300 million a year for water. But our exclusive investigation found the water department ranks almost dead last in customer service compared with utilities across the country, and some customers told us they believe they’re being cheated. On Your Side Investigators have been asking questions for more than a year, and we uncovered a water department that preys on the elderly, sick and disabled. Customers are calling for change. 

Our Findings

From outrageous bills to poor customer service, our investigative team found a wide range of complaints from water customers who tell us they are convinced the water department is more concerned about profits than people.

“But it was not a normal water bill,” water customer Brian Caine said. “It was five times the amount of water we typically use.”

In 2015 alone, 16,000 water customers complained they were overbilled, and 44,000 shutoff notices were sent out.

Every one of those customers was entitled to a full hearing to dispute their bills, but our investigation found only a handful – 31 total --- receive one of their most basic rights.

“It’s just the way you’re being treated – if you’re a senior citizen, or anyone and you pay your bills and then all of a sudden, here comes this gigantic bill,” customer Thelma Davis added.

 

Over the last three years, the water department turned over nearly 8,000 water customers to the Cuyahoga County Auditor, slapping liens on their homes.

Customer Sherri Gordon fell victim to this tactic.

“And it just got my blood boiling because I lost my home because of them,” Gordon told us.

Unlike other major utilities that are subject to state regulations by the Ohio Public Utilities Commission, the Cleveland Water Department goes both unregulated and unchecked. It does not report to any entity, except a city council committee that did not know how many complaints the water department had received when we asked.

MAP: Shut-off notices sent to Cleveland water customers in 2015

We also learned Cleveland water – the area’s only water source – is spending $300,000 in advertising, promotion and marketing on items, such as water bottles and toothbrushes.

At the time that we questioned the water department about these expenditures, Cleveland water Chief of Public Affairs Jason Wood said the advertising gives the utility the opportunity to create engagement. 

Outrageous Bills

Over the last year, the News 5 Investigative team documented more than 16,000 customer complaints and uncovered the stories behind so many questionable bills.

Jackie McFarquhar is fighting her 82-year-old mother’s water bill – $3,816 for water and $1,700 for sewer. Her mother is confined to her bed and a stroke victim. McFarquhar said she could not have used that much water.

“Could not [be] possible,” she said. “She’s been sick.”

In a very rare instance, her bills were examined by the water review board, only to lose and be forced to pay thousands for water she’s never consumed.

“Whether you use that to cook, clean, wash your cars, give your mother a bath, or just run down the toilet, it’s not really our concern,” a water official told the family during the hearing.

We found more individual accounts bombarded with large bills, as well as baffling bills to vacant buildings.

Cleveland water explained some of these bills are because of leaks. But some customers we spoke to insisted there were no leaks and even hired plumbers who proved that there were none.

“It’s like a highway robbery,” customer Francisco Vasquez told us. “How are they going to charge me for something I’ve never consumed, I’ve never had and I’ve never used?”

The charity-driven Moose Lodge in Northfield Village shared this frustration. They received a bill for $16,000 for water and sewer, or 920,000 gallons, all in just 36 days. To put it in perspective, an Olympic-sized pool only holds 660,000 gallons.

Moose Lodge Members Bob Adler and Al Shaw showed us multiple questionable readings by Cleveland water.

"I don't know where we're going to get the $16,000 and if we do come up with it, then some charitable organizations will suffer in the meantime while we're trying to get that money back,” Adler said. “So, it's just a sad situation.”

The Cleveland water declined to speak on camera related to Moose Lodge’s bill, but told us they don’t think there’s an error on their part. 

How Did We Get Here?

Our investigation found these are not new complaints, and nearly eight years after we first revealed serious billing errors within the water department – and millions to fix it – widespread complaints continue.

At that time, News 5 uncovered an Ohio Auditor Report showing nearly 35,000 water meters were broken, preventing actual readings and producing inaccurate bills.

In 2010, a News 5 investigation also uncovered water department customer service wait times that averaged 35 minutes. Then-public utilities Director Barry Withers said the water department was working “every resource to try and solve that.”

The next year, we took the investigation to Mayor Frank Jackson, and the city launched the “Cleveland water Turnaround Project.” The water department hired additional meter readers and customer service personnel.

Cleveland water faced another setback in 2012 when we revealed the utility was behind in collecting badly needed revenue totaling more than $40 million.

In 2013, Cleveland water was in “Phase One” of replacing 420,000 water meters with wireless units, costing more than $80 million. But consumers like Rick Voiers, of Bay Village, complained the new meters had major glitches, producing bills of several hundred dollars for water that was never used.

Problems continued in 2014, causing the City of Westlake to obtain a judge’s ruling, allowing it to explore getting its water from Avon instead of Cleveland. The city ultimately won in court.

It has been a turbulent decade for Cleveland water, and our series of investigations since 2008 have exposed a wide variety of system failures that have produced thousands of consumer complaints and millions of your tax dollars spent on consultants to clean it up. 

Taking the ‘Service’ Out of ‘Customer Service’

Our investigation also revealed when Cleveland water customers attempt to battle back against their high bills, it usually ends in frustration.

We found customer service representatives – people who are supposed to help customers understand their bills and come up with solutions – hanging up on people and exhibiting rude behavior. These representatives are paid by your taxpayer dollars.

When Denise Kaufman saw that her bill was double than what she normally pays, she called Cleveland water for help. But she said the representatives were rude and insisted she used the water, when no one was even home. A plumber also found no leaks.

“I said [to them], ‘I work customer service. If I ever treated a patient – I work with patients – or a customer the way I was treated, I would no longer have a job,’” she told us.

We found scores of others are routinely abused and ignored by the very people they’re paying to help understand their bills. We obtained nearly 300 pages of disciplinary records and found one of every three customer service representatives violated water department policies ranging from neglect of duty, to excessive absenteeism.

The water department declined to respond to our investigation. But more than 200 Cleveland Water Customers did. In an exclusive News5Cleveland.com survey, 90 percent rated customer service as “terrible” and 96 percent said they never heard of their right to a water review board hearing. 

Best in the Nation

As part of our investigation, we dug into which water departments nationwide are doing it right and servicing their customers well.

A first-of-its-kind study by J.D. Power, a renowned global market research company, rated the nation’s utilities in 2016.

Andrew Heath, senior director of utilities and infrastructure with J.D. Power said Clevelanders reported they want water quality at affordable rates and better customer service.

“There clearly is potential for room for improvements that is available to the organization to be able to better engage with and provide better service to customers in the City of Cleveland,” Heath said.

We spoke to Miami-Dade Water – rated the best in the study – about its efforts. The company has hired more employees, extended hours of service and re-engineered the way customer calls are handled.

The company also provides credits to customers for underground leaks or leaks that cannot be explained, as well as if it’s not through the fault of the customer.

“We really don’t exist unless we’re able to take care of our customers,” said Lester Sola, director of Miami-Dade, which was rated as the best of the 84 largest utilities in the country. “Really, we are a monopoly, but that shouldn’t skew the way we look at ourselves and our ability to be responsive to our customers.”

We found Cleveland Water is quick to place tax liens on customers, but we found other utilities operate differently.

“Ultimately, the department does have the abilities to establish liens on properties, but rarely – if ever—does,” Sola said. “Rarely if ever does it get to that.” 

Tax Liens Tactics

Our investigation uncovered another strong armed tactic by the Cleveland Water Department that has cost people their homes. We found the water department is going after what some families spend a lifetime trying to achieve.

“They’re preying on families and individuals who are stressed out in many ways in other situations, and to add this on is very difficult."

“They’re preying on families and individuals who are stressed out in many ways in other situations, and to add this on is very difficult,” Gordon said. “…It caused us to sell the home. We would have foreclosed, we would have lost the home.”

We also find the water department often intimidates and threatens, instead of working with homeowners.

Gordon said the water department told her they’d look into the issue of a $3,000 water bill – water she said she never used. But she did not receive any answers, nor was she alerted regarding the lien.

MAP: Tax liens placed on customers' homes (2013-15)

Documents show nearly 8,000 water tax liens on homes across Cuyahoga County over the last three years, four times as many homeowners facing tax liens since 2013. More than 3,600 were filed in the last year.

 

Katherine Hollingsworth, an attorney with the Cleveland Legal Aid Society, said she believes this tactic contributes to the foreclosure crisis.

There’s also concern the water department is violating a federal court ruling protecting water customers’ rights. The water review board was created by a 1987 federal consent decree to help water customers facing excessive bills and threatened shutoffs. But some customers tell us they have never been told of their right to a hearing, and we uncovered the hearing process is cloaked in secrecy

Call to Action

Our investigation is already prompting calls for change.

One of Cleveland’s most respected religious leaders Rev. Dr. Larry Macon, Sr., pastor of Mt. Zion Oakwood Village and President of United Pastors in Mission, called for hearings into strong arm billing tactics deployed by Cleveland water that threatens homeowners with tax liens on disputed bills.

“There ought to be a moratorium set for these folks,” Dr. Macon said, “for at least one to three years where you start to review what’s going on and we can help.” He added he would ask pastors to begin talking with their congregations and begin hearings.

In addition, a 2016 J.D. Power customer satisfaction study found dismal performance by the Cleveland Water Department.

Our investigation is far from over. We will continue to ask questions and demand answers from your leaders at the Cleveland Water Department.

You can tell us your experiences with the department and watch our exclusive Cleveland water customer town hall to hear others’ stories by visiting our interactive page here.