Water customer baffled by $3,600 penalty

Water customer baffled by $3,600 penalty

BELLA VISTA, Calif. - One Bella Vista homeowner is dealing with a mess. Her ‘exorbitant' water bill, with a normal base-rate of about $60, has more than $3,500 in penalties.

Deborah Burns is not alone, with many Bella Vista Water District customers feeling the pinch in this drought. She is wondering how she ended up in this predicament.

"I thought it was a mistake," she said. "I thought it was $300-something, which would still be a high bill. But it was $3,700."

The total balance of her current March to May billing statement was $3,746.54. Of that total $3,629 was strictly penalties.

"For $3,000 or $4,000 I would think I'd be floating here," she said about her Bella Vista property.

It is not floating or flooded. Six people live on the five-acre land. There are four people in her house and a couple disabled seniors needing assistance living in a separate residence. The land houses a pair of cattle and several chickens. Burns said she is being conservative with her water usage.

Her bill said otherwise, according to Bella Vista Water District general manager David Coxey.

"It's an enormous delivery of water and it greatly exceeds the customer's allotment in a declared water shortage emergency," he said. "So there's a big problem here."

As Coxey explained, Deborah Burns went more than 200 percent over her allotment. Residential customers, like Burns, are getting roughly 70 percent of a three-year average historical use. A further breakdown is available on the district's website here.

Coxey said cutbacks are needed.

"What we're advising people to do is consider their outdoor watering. This whole concept of avoiding showers or flushing toilets - it's pretty minimal," he said.

Burns said she took action in her household months ago.

"You know we knew we didn't stand a chance so that's when we started buying hay for our cows. We don't irrigate the pasture anymore," Deborah said.

Shocked by the amount, she looked for answers and took her bill to customer service.

"She said how much can you pay? I said well I'll pay $200 extra a month. She said oh no, we won't put it out that far," Debra said.

A strict payment plan, Coxey said, gives a customer six months to pay it off. For Deborah, that is still more than $600 per payment.

Coxey said he is seeing similar cases, but to a lesser extent.

"More than I'd like to see. I wouldn't say a lot. But yeah there are many customers hitting penalties - not nearly as big as [Burns' penalties]," Coxey said. "We'd certainly like to reduce the fines. Unfortunately, we just don't have the water supply to replace that."

In previous reports, many customers complained there was not enough notification of this increase in fees and penalties. Bella Vista Water District officials said they put out multiple newsletters and publications but will work to be more transparent.

As for Burns' case and her $3,629 in penalties, Coxey said there will be "some consideration" taken to alleviate her financial dilemma. As of the time of this report, they are in contact with Burns regarding her May bill.

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