After months of mounting complaints over billing problems, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority faces a lawsuit seeking millions in punitive damages that alleges the authority has failed to fix “grossly inaccurate and at-times outrageously high bills.”
The lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status on behalf of all ratepayers, was filed in Common Pleas Court on Thursday on behalf of Millvale property owner Susan Newman “and all others similarly situated.” It accuses the authority of violating the state Municipal Authorities Act and the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, as well as breach of contract, unjust enrichment and conspiracy, among other allegations.
“PWSA is acutely aware that its billings are wrong but [does] not hesitate for a moment to issue ‘shut-off’ notices and then arbitrarily turns off water service,” says the suit, which also names the city, Veolia Water North America, which is managing the authority under a contract, and Jordan Tax Service, which bills for PWSA.
“Customer complaints are ignored and in some instances water bills have increased almost 600 percent from one month to the next.”
Attorney John P. Corcoran Jr. filed the suit on behalf of Ms. Newman, who could not be reached for comment, and an entity called the Community Campaign to Reform PWSA, which he described as a group of ratepayers.
At the heart of the billing problems are water meter interface units installed by the authority, devices that relay consumption information used to generate bills. The suit claims the units have “catastrophically failed.”
In a Pittsburgh City Council public hearing May 14, the authority acknowledged that as many as 14 percent of its roughly 300,000 customers are receiving estimated bills because of problems with the units or meters themselves. Officials say they are working hard to fix software and other issues contributing to the billing complaints.
The authority has also expanded hours and staffing at its customer service center.
Melissa Rubin, a spokeswoman, said the authority does not comment on pending litigation.
The suit was filed just days after the authority named James Good, a Veolia employee who has been serving as interim director of the authority for the past three years, as its permanent director at a $240,000 annual salary. City Councilwoman Deborah Gross, who serves on the PWSA board, said “we’ll take a hard look” at whether the authority took too long to grasp the full scope of the billing issues.
“Our responsibility is to our ratepayers,” she said.
Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said her office for months on end has fielded complaints from residents who failed to receive bills, received inexplicably high bills or got shut-off notices without getting a bill first.
“I felt from the very beginning that this needed to be addressed systematically, not on an individual basis,” she said, adding that the authority initially failed to acknowledge the problems publicly. At the public hearing, Mrs. Kail-Smith bristled at what she called the authority’s “cavalier” response to the complaints.
In February, the authority said about 3,500 customers were receiving estimated bills because they had older meters that were not compatible with the “advanced metering infrastructure” it began installing in 2013. The authority blamed higher-than-normal bills on “extreme weather conditions” that might have caused a leak in their pipes.
But that doesn’t explain one bill cited in Ms. Newman’s lawsuit, a $2,300 increase in charges for a vacant property that had water service shut off, Mr. Corcoran said.
“It’s a total billing error,” Mr. Corcoran said. “Water was shut off at the curb.”
Robert Zullo: email@example.com, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @rczullo. First Published May 26, 2015 12:15 PM