MOUNT PLEASANT — Town residents have been shocked by monthly water bills so high that they can rival rent or mortgage payments.
Mount Pleasant Waterworks raised rates this summer, but not enough to account for skyrocketing bills. The utility said water use spiked amid high temperatures and drought, and that customers are only being billed for the water they actually used.
"Our water bill has been over $900 for each of the past two months," said Cathy Sizer. "It's not like we live on a farm or something."
Sizer, whose Old Village house sits on a one-fifth-acre lot, said the bills have been inexplicable.
On Facebook and Nextdoor community pages throughout the town, residents have complained of water bills as high as $2,500. Others say their bills, normally well under $100, have soared to hundreds of dollars.
“There are people whose water bills were $100 one month and $1,500 the next month and then $100 again," Town Council member Guang Ming Whitley said. "At least, that’s what they are telling me."
Mount Pleasant Waterworks insists that its recently installed water meters are accurate, and it blames huge water bills on excessive lawn-watering or leaks.
“My water bill tripled in July," said MPW General Manager Clay Duffie. "It was hot as hell, and my wife was out in the yard watering because she didn’t want the plants to die. My bill was $300."
“There’s nothing crazy going on," he said. "If you choose to irrigate and you don’t know how much water your system is using, that’s going to be problem."
Duffie estimated that a $900 water bill would mean someone used about 50,000 gallons of water in a month, which is about 10 times what a typical residential customer consumes.
Many residents don't appear to accept the utility's explanation.
“There are too many people complaining about this for that to be true (that everything is working correctly)," Whitley said. “There seems to be a systemic problem.”
“Maybe people are irrigating from midnight to 5 a.m. and aren’t even aware of it," she said. "But it seems like there’s something else going on."
Several residents have filed a potential class-action lawsuit against Mount Pleasant Waterworks alleging that their bills "did not align with their actual usage of water and wastewater services."
Some plaintiffs allege their meters were faulty, one claims they were double-billed, and most allege that plumbers and irrigation system inspectors could find no leaks to explain high water usage. One claimed to be out of town for two billing periods, in January and February, with water to toilets and an irrigation system turned off, but still received water bills for those months of $305.18 and $315.87, respectively.
Mount Pleasant Waterworks has denied the claims, wants the lawsuit to be dismissed and wants a judge to order the plaintiffs to pay the utility's legal expenses.
Among the allegations in the lawsuit: "It is reported that MPW's customer service representative told a customer that the customer's cat was flushing the toilet and that the cat was causing the customer's excessive water bills." The utility denied that allegation and demanded proof, in its response.
That lawsuit is separate from another class-action case in which MPW is accused of overcharging businesses and homeowner associations.
The residential customer lawsuit and water bill questions come during an election year. On Nov. 5, town voters will fill two of the five seats on the utility's board of commissioners. Town Councilman Joe Bustos, chairman of the council's Water Supply Committee, also serves as a commissioner due to his council committee chairmanship, and is running for reelection.
Rick Crosby is chairman of the commissioners, and is running for reelection. He said MPW has done extensive testing of its water meters, and he's confident the system is working correctly.
“I just don’t believe that there’s anything wrong," he said.
“Over the past summer, we have bought record amounts of water from Charleston Water System," he said. "It’s been very, very hot and very, very dry, and I do see a lot of sprinklers going."
Mount Pleasant Waterworks buys much of the water it sells to East Cooper customers from Charleston Water System. Duffie said the increased water MPW has been buying corresponds to the increased water it's been selling, as recorded by household water meters.
“We’ve double-checked the numbers," he said. "We’ve looked at the gallons we sell and the gallons we pump."
Unlike MPW, Charleston Water System has not seen or heard complaints about spiking water bills, CWS spokesman Mike Saia said. A typical residential bill in the city runs between $60 and $100.
“I don’t believe that anyone in our water system is seeing $900 water bills," Saia said. “If a residential customer is getting a $900 water bill, typically they have filled a swimming pool or done a large, water-intensive project or have a massive water leak."
Crosby and Duffie said Mount Pleasant Waterworks will be holding a special open house meeting from 9 a.m. to noon Oct. 26 to help customers who want to look at their water usage and billing information.
In the first half of 2020, the utility expects to launch an online system that will allow customers to get text message or email alerts if their water consumption is unusually high, or indicates that they have a leak.
Customers with water leaks that result in high bills can request a bill adjustment from the utility.