Herbert Jones got a water and sewer bill the other day, charging him $638 for 11 months of service to his house at 68 U St., NW.
Jones' neighbor, Charles Hood, of 123 T St. NW was billed $2.44 by the D.C. government for water and sewer service for approximately the same period of time.
The vast differences among bills sent to residents of the neighborhood in the District government's latest water and sewer charge mailing has alarmed and activated citizens there. Meanwhile, complaints from citizens about what they consider excessive increases in their bills have risen from other parts of town.
"This is a crisis, and we're trying to deal with it.We need help," said Nelson Terry, a spokesman for 89 families in the unit block of U Street NW, and surrounding areas, many of whom have complained about their bills.
Terry said he has been telephoning constantly this week to city officials and agencies to try to correct what residents see as gross errors in their water and sewer bills.
It is ironic that the charges most complained about in the latest set of bills resulted in part from attempts by the D.C. Water Resources Management Administration to resolve historical problems and irregularities in billing.
Customers are quicker to question the administration these days, according to Edward M. Scott, acting chief of the agency's revenue division, "because of our track record, the problems with our bills the last few years. If you've been burned nounce . . ."
Until this year, the city's approximately 120,000 water and sewer customers have received bills every six months, but the water agency's errors resulted in thousands of delayed bills, and elimination of some customers from the process for years at a time, studies showed. This year the 11-month schedule was instituted.
"We had to try to catch up on the backlog and try to get the billing back on a normal schedule." Scott explained yesterday. He said the change was also aimed at collecting the $39.5 million in water bill revenues that were estimated in this fiscal year's budget.
The combination of receiving bills for a longer period of time than usual, in addition to water and sewer rate increase, caused officials to anticipate a flood of complaints, according to Scott. He said he hired five additional persons to handle customer problems, nearly doubling the previous staff.
"There are some errors," Scott admitted, but most of the complaints lodged with his office since the latest billing have resulted from "the extended billing period - the 11 months, compounded by the rate increase," he said.
Scott said most of the complaining customers have been satisfied once they were shown that their bill was for a consumption period twice the usual time.
Around the city, however, indications are that unhappy residents have sought out neighbors, seeking some basis for protesting the higher charges.
"I want to know how much water we're supposed to have used," said Ada Palmer, of 430 V Street NW, one of about six persons who came to Scott's office within a few minutes yesterday.
D.C. City Councilman Marion Barry, whose finance and revenue committee successfully urged the Council to mandate that the water agency certify it has mailed out bills properly each year said he opposes the 11-month billing system as unfair. "It is going to hit a lot of people hard."
Barry said he believes that the city has made "a lot of improvements" in its billing system, "but they were so messed up, it was like starting from below zero."
At least one city resident was pleased with his latest water and sewer bill. Charles Hood said he first called the water administration for assurance that the greatly reduced charge was accurate, then paid the $2.41 right away.