Kelly Powell was shocked on Wednesday when she checked her KC Water account online and found an unpaid balance of $12,413.
Usually, the single-family Waldo home she lives in with her husband, step-daughter and toddler yields a water bill of around $100 each month.
Assuming the more than $12,000 balance was a mistake, Powell called KC Water to correct it. She said a representative told her there was no error and that the amount was a “back-bill” for her water usage over the past 16 months.
She said the representative explained that since April 2021, the department had been basing her bill off of estimates of her household’s water usage and had been underestimating, but now it could only back charge her for 16 months.
“In cases where there is not an actual meter read available for the customer’s account, KC Water will estimate the customer’s usage based on their previous years water usage,” Sherae Honeycutt, a spokesperson for the city, wrote in an emailed statement.
“She said they’ve been underbilling us,” Powell told The Star. “I don’t even know what to do.” Powell added that she has extensively checked her home for leaks and has found none.
On Thursday evening following inquiries from The Star about the status of Powell’s account, Powell told The Star she got a message without explanation from KC Water saying the department looked over her account and adjusted her balance to $351.16.
How much water would cost $12,400?
KC Water would have had to have undercharged Powell by around $776 every month for the past 16 months in order to achieve the back bill total that appeared in her account.
This amount is equivalent to using an extra 112,955 gallons of water every month, according to KC Water’s current rate sheet for water usage. The department’s website states that an average customer uses just 3,920 gallons of water a month.
“We don’t see bills like that,” said John Rich, executive director of the Mid-America Assistance Coalition’s Low-Income Homes Water Assistance Program, which helps residents of Jackson, Clay and Platte Counties apply for assistance paying their water bills. His program distributes one-time grants of $750 to help water customers pay their outstanding bills.
“$750 would probably cover about five months, it might cover more,” he said. “I can’t even imagine how this person got a $12,000 water bill. There’s got to be an underlying reason for that.”
KC Water’s deputy director Celeste Tucker told The Star last week for a different story that an average customer’s overall bill is around $110 per month when water use, wastewater and stormwater charges are combined. That’s roughly what Powell has already been paying for the past two years.
“I thought I was doing the right thing paying my bill every month,” she told The Star. “I don’t know what my recourse is.”
KC Water and the city did not respond to questions about how the department arrived at the more than $12,000 balance.
“There are many billing checks in place to prevent over and underbilling customers,” Honeycutt wrote in an email on behalf of the city. “While KC Water cannot discuss a specific customer’s account, we do encourage all customers to contact KC Water if they have questions regarding their water bill and or their water usage.”
Nearly two years of estimated water bills
Powell recently learned that KC Water had based her December and January bills on an estimate of her family’s water usage after she called the department about an unexpectedly high bill.
But until the $12,413 charge showed up in her account this week, she had no idea that the estimates dated back nearly two years.
KC Water has a policy of creating water usage estimates when its equipment can’t get a reading from a customer’s water meter. This estimate is supposed to be based on a customer’s typical usage for that time of the year, based on the measurements from the previous year.
“The only thing (KC Water) does is put a tiny red line to say this is an estimated read,” Powell said. “I was literally paying the bill they were sending me, thinking it was my water usage, because I missed a tiny red line on the second page of my bill.”
According to Honeycutt, about 3% of more than 2 million invoices that KC Water sent out in fiscal year 2022 were estimates.
“The billing system will calculate estimated consumption using the 3-month average of the prior year’s usage,” city spokesperson Heather Frierson wrote in an email to The Star. For example, an estimate for July of 2022 would take the average of a customer’s usage from June, July and August of 2021.
But since Powell’s bill was estimated for more than a year, bills then started being calculated based on averages from estimated amounts.
KC Water and the city did not respond to questions about why Powell’s bill had been estimated for that long, or what happens when a bill is estimated for more than a year.
From $12,400 to $350
After calling on Wednesday, Powell said her account had been placed “on hold” for 30 days while KC Water reviewed the bill.
The hold would prevent her water from being shut off for nonpayment of the $12,400 bill. She said a KC Water representative told her to call back on March 1 for an update on the situation.
Powell said the representative offered to put her family on a payment plan and suggested paying for a KC Water service that sends technicians to customers’ homes to check for leaks. Instead, she said she planned to seek out a lawyer.
“The last thing I’m going to do is pay more money,” she said. “If you’re billing people outrageous amounts, that’s not okay.”
Then on Thursday evening after The Star asked the city about Powell’s situation, she said she got an unexpected message from KC Water that said the department looked over her account and adjusted her balance to $351.16.
KC Water and the city did not respond to questions about what happened to Powell’s water bill, if an error was made or what kind of resolution the department would seek. They did not offer an explanation of how or why her account balance changed to $351.16.
How can I tell if my bill is based on an estimate?
Customers won’t find out about a faulty meter or problems with their electronic meter-reader until they receive a bill based on an estimate. The notice is in red text near the top of the second page of your bill.
Tucker told The Star that after three months of estimates, KC Water will send a notice asking customers to contact the department if their meter is indoors where technicians need an appointment to access it.
Otherwise, reading your bill thoroughly is the only way to find out the department is estimating your usage.
What can KC Water customers do about incorrect bills?
If customers receive a usage estimate they believe is inaccurate, Tucker advised them to contact KC Water.
“Those situations are reviewed based on the customer’s history (and) the information that they provide,” she said. You can contact KC Water by calling 816-513-1313 and choosing option one or by calling 311.
Do you have more questions about utilities in the metro? Ask the Service Journalism team at email@example.com.