High water? Autumn Hill residents question $180 bill
Tara Stankovic and Scott Lester have lived in Autumn Hill apartment complex for three years and say their water and sewer bill for their two-bedroom apartment would typically run between $70 to $80.
In April, they moved to a three-bedroom apartment in the same complex and found, over the past three months, their bill at $100, $173, and most recently, $181.
"I can get no explanation on how they come up with them," says a frustrated Stankovic.
She understands that the meter in her apartment measures only hot water, and she also knows that the $201 total bill includes $10 for trash, a $5 fee for AUM, the company that bills tenants, and $5 for pest control.
What she doesn't understand is how her family of four could possibly be using $181 worth of water and sewer in a county where the average household bill, according to Lisa Breeden at Albemarle County Service Authority, is $53.31
This is not the first time there have been complaints about the billing practices at Autumn Hill, which is located on Commonwealth Drive.
"They remain a problem," says Brenda Castenada at Legal Aid Justice Center. "I still get complaints about the utilities."
Three years ago, Castenada represented Natalia and Michael Bost, who, like Stankovich and Lester, were stunned that their water bill exceeded $100.
"It's outrageous," says Natalia Bost. "I don't know how they come up with these bills."
While they didn't prevail in court, the landlord let the couple out of their lease.
"We now live in a house twice the size of our apartment," says Bost. "Our water bill is $50 a month. There, it was $100 to $150."
Jim Spahn is spokesperson for Colonial Properties, which owns Autumn Hill.
"There is no mark-up passed on to the residents," Spahn insists. "The rate is not high– it's billed at the same rate as the utility."
Spahn explains that some of the older buildings at Autumn Hill don't have individual water meters, so the complex has no way to precisely measure each apartment's total water usage. Residents in such units rely on a hot water meter, and their bill is calculated by what Spahn calls an "allocation" basis.
For example, if unit X's hot water usage is 890 gallons, and all the units combine to consume 180,000 gallons, you divide unit X's usage by the total hot water usage of the complex to get its allocation percentage. That number is multiplied by the total water and sewer bills, and in his example, the tenant's bill comes to around $59.
Spahn suggests that the frequency and duration of showers and whether a resident runs a full dishwasher could affect the water bill. "It's all down to usage," he says.
However, tenant Stankovic says her family's water usage habits have not changed– except that her 19-year-old daughter moved out, leaving her with the expectation her bill would drop. And she still finds the bills perplexing.
For example, one month she recalls using less water, but the bill increased. She also wonders how a neighbor with four kids and a husband and who runs an on-site daycare manages to spend less than $100 on water.
According to Stankovic's October bill, her family used 1,990 gallons of hot water. She called Albemarle County Water and Sewer Authority to find out what her bill would be if she were on the public utility and says it would be about $33. Autumn Hill billed her $181.
"That 1,990 gallons is only a measurement of the hot water," reminds Colonial's Spahn.
It turns out, says Stankovic, that the Service Authority took that into consideration and doubled the 1,990 gallons of hot water to come up with its $33 estimate, an amount a reporter confirms with the Authority.
Of Autumn Hills' 425 units, "Only 11 percent of the residents had water and sewer bills in excess of $100," says Spahn, further downplaying the complaints in response to a reporter's questions.
"You have had two people contact you in five years," says Spahn.
"Autumn Hill consistently has high water bills," says Castenada at Legal Aid Justice Center, where she continues to get calls. "This seems like it's ongoing."
Castenada says that aggrieved residents can file a tenant's assertion in general district court and pay rent into an escrow account until a judge can hear the case. "A judge can order repairs, end the lease, or pay the escrow to the tenant or landlord," she says.
"The first thing to do is put complaints in writing," advises Castenada. "Calling– it kind of doesn't count according to the law."
And the law appears to be on the side of the apartment complex.
"Autumn Hill has the longest lease I've seen," says Castenada, who admits: "We haven't found a good way to challenge it."
On November 14, Stankovic got a new water bill that dropped slightly– to $166.