KOB reports prompt city leader to change water-billing practices

Posted at: 01/23/2014 10:36 PM
By: Ryan Luby, KOB Eyewitness News 4

A city manager said her staff messed up when it billed a homeowner for using more than 30,000 gallons of water in less than a month.

"We made a mistake," Belen City Manager Lucy Baca said of the September bill.  "Yes, we did."

She said the staff would work on better communication and ways to improve customer service.

Last week, Baca sent John Bodenheimer a letter insisting that he pay the bill.  She also chastised 4 On Your Side for bringing "turmoil to the public" after KOB Eyewitness News 4 aired a story about another bill Bodenheimer received for 730-thousand gallons of water in December.

The city's water department quickly acknowledged that the December bill amounted to a clerical error, but Baca claimed that the September bill was legitimate.  She said she relied on her staff and believed Bodenheimer must've had a leak at his home.

After 4 On Your Side insisted that Bodenheimer, who typically lives alone, was incapable of using 33,500 gallons of water in 28 days – with or without a leak – Baca said she found records to prove that the man's claims were correct.

"What did occur is that his home was vacated for 9 years.  The water was not turned off.  Someone was using it," she said.

Baca said the home had been vacant since 2004 and that thieves took advantage of the home's water supply since then.

"And we lost out on that income, obviously," she said.

Baca said her staff assumed the reading on the home's water meter didn't change between 2004 and the time Bodenheimer moved in.

"Before they opened the account they should have gone out there to check the [meter] reading and start from there," Baca said of her staff.

She said she took Bodenheimer more seriously when he addressed Belen's city council about the issue Tuesday night.

4 On Your Side confronted her at the same time too.

"We're still checking on it," she said that night.

Baca said Thursday that she does not regret sending Bodenheimer the letter last week.

"You know what, I don't," she told 4 On Your Side.  "I learned that from now on I better make sure that my staff is absolutely correct in what they give me, and that I can back up whatever is in there."

On Wednesday, Baca met Bodenheimer.  She lowered his water bill to 300 gallons instead of 33,500 gallons.  She also gave him a credit for the money he paid to restart his water service.  The city briefly shut it off when he refused to pay the initial bill.

"I probably won't have to pay my bill for a couple of months," Bodenheimer joked on Thursday.

He thanked 4 On Your Side for helping him resolve the situation.

"I don't think I would have gotten as far as I had," Bodenheimer said.

Baca said the city would continue to install new electronic meters to replace manual meters like the one Bodenheimer had.  She said the new meters are more accurate, easier and more accessible to read for her city's small staff.