KCTV5 Investigates: Kansas City's unpaid water bills - KCTV5

KCTV5 Investigates: Kansas City's unpaid water bills

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A lack of money is something the Kansas City Water Services Department has been lamenting for years.

To help offset the costs of a crumbling infrastructure and an ensuing flood of water main breaks, the city raised customer rates this spring. If residents vote against a $500 million sewer bond next month, the price of water could go up again.

Not everyone who uses city water pays for it.

KCTV5 filed a request under the Missouri Sunshine Law and obtained the Kansas City Water Service Department's list of delinquent water and stormwater accounts from late May. The list is comprised of accounts with an outstanding balance of $150 or more that is 56 days past due. At the time, it contained 12,000 names of customers who collectively owed the city $13.1 million.

Those names include people like Kansas City resident Cecilia Cole, who says she fell on tough times and didn't have the money to pay her bill.

"When I stopped using water it was $350, $380," said Cole. "I turned off the water in the basement 'cause it was the wintertime."

To stop a further financial slide, Cole says she turned off the water inside her Brooklyn Avenue home. By not closing down her account with the department, Cole failed to prevent the flow of new service fees and interest charges to her bill.The city has taken Cole to court in an effort to get paid the more than $1,200 that the city says she owes.

"It's making me sick," Cole said. "I stay frustrated."

In contrast, the city has chosen not to use those same collection tactics against at least 95 percent of the delinquent account holders on that list, including much larger bills accrued by municipalities, the federal government and schools.

Seven weeks ago, the water department listed delinquent amounts for the cities of Gladstone ($3,060.67), Belton ($6,829.84), Lee's Summit, ($11,042.96), and Independence ($9,885.04), totaling more than $30,000. Those records also showed the U.S. Post Office had fallen behind on payments and owed $41,417 for several buildings including the downtown post office on Pershing Road. A few schools appeared on the late May delinquency list. The African-centered education building on East Meyer Boulevard showed an overdue bill of nearly $10,000 while nearby Southeast High School, which was also part of the ACE campus, totaled $23,394.02.

The biggest delinquent account on record in late May occurred at probably the most famous address in Kansas City: The Truman Sports Complex. Records showed unpaid stormwater bills for that property totaling $123,090. Jackson County owns the property where the Chiefs and Royals play.

Jim Rowland, executive director for the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority, which manages the stadiums for the county, declined an on-camera interview with KCTV5.

Rowland wrote in an email, "The bills have been in limbo for months. Apparently they were sent to someone else... We are working with the city to clarify who was paying them, when they were last paid and then to get them resolved."

Similar billing problems were discovered back in a 2007 city audit. That report found the water department, "forfeiting revenue through inconsistent billing and collection practices and errors in setting up and maintaining accounts." At the time, KCMO had filed no liens against anyone with unpaid stormwater bills. While the city supposedly made changes to that practice, the records obtained by KCTV5 showed only one stormwater lien in place.

"I think, clearly the department has let too many customers, including some that have the resources to pay be delinquent, for too long," Kansas City council member John Sharp said.

KCTV5 took its findings to the councilman, who expressed surprise at some of the prominent ratepayers with outstanding bills.

"We need to collect the money that is owed to us, concentrate on these big accounts where these companies or organizations have the wherewithal to pay. We ought to go after the low-hanging fruit first."

The Water Services Department may not agree. During a sit-down meeting when the water department handed over the delinquency list, the agency's private public relations consultant, Amy Jordan Wooden told KCTV5 that the outstanding $13.1 million was a small amount of money. In her exact words, the bills represented "just a drop in the bucket."

KCTV5 had planned to ask about that comment and the delinquent accounts during an on-camera interview with Water Services Department Chief Financial Officer Sean Hennessy. Wooden canceled that interview.

KCTV5 passed along Wooden's assertion to Sharp that the $13.1 million dollars the city is owed is not a lot of money.

Sharp was not convinced.

"Thirteen million dollars is a lot of money," he said.

The Sports Authority sent a second email to KCTV5, telling the station it has now resolved those unpaid bills.

City Hall says water services billing and customer services is one of the city's top complaints from residents. Earlier this year, a special task force was created to deal with those issues. It's being run by yet another consultant, being paid a reported $250 an hour.

Copyright 2012 KCTV (Meredith Corp.)  All rights reserved.

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