Cloudy water: Murky billing soaks Autumn Hill residents

news-mikenatalia-bostMike and Natalia Bost say they can't afford to pay a $100 water/sewer bill at Autumn Hill apartments. PHOTO BY LISA PROVENCE

When Natalia and Michael Bost moved into Autumn Hill apartments with their new baby in July, they thought the $827 a month rent for a two-bedroom apartment was a pretty good deal–- until the day they received a $200 water and sewer bill. Now, they're among several tenants at the Commonwealth Drive-area complex who think water is being used as a profit center.

"We were told that water, sewer, and trash payments would be made directly to the leasing office and that they would run $30-40 a month," says Natalia Bost. "In our last apartment, we paid about $25."

At Autumn Hill, the lease reveals that residents may be paying for utilities consumed not only in common areas but also in other residential units, as well as paying an administrative fee that "may or may not accurately reflect actual total utility consumption."

news-autumn-hillWater and sewer bills can vary wildly under sub-metered third-party billing at Autumn Hill apartments off Commonwealth Drive. PHOTO BY LISA PROVENCE

In her work as an attorney for Legal Aid Justice Center, Brenda Castaneda has heard previous complaints about Autumn Hill.

"They have really high water bills," says Castaneda. "Either they have really high usage, or they're making a huge profit, and they're not allowed to make a huge profit."

Or maybe they can. In older complexes that don't have a separate water meter for each unit, management can place a small in-home meter on the hot water pipes and then apply a ratio to estimate total use.

Bost says she sent an email October 20 and a letter November 13 requesting the billing formula, and to date she's claims no response on the numbers that go into the formula. As she struggled to figure out the rate at which her bill was calculated, Bost contacted the third-party biller, AUM, to learn how what ratio was used.

"I was told by the AUM customer service representative that this number was 'private information belonging to your apartment complex,'" relates Bost. "I called our apartment complex to follow up on this number and was told they would 'get back to me.'"

While she never got the ratio, she did find out that her $200 bill included a set-up fee, a partial month, a $10 trash fee, and a $4.50 administrative fee for AUM. Thinking that was a one-time high, the Bosts were stunned to receive an $88 water/sewer bill in August, and by September it had soared to $108.77. (The average customer pays $69.84, according to the Albemarle County Service Authority.)

"I'm concerned about profit sharing and transparency when a public utility is taken into the private sector," says Bost, noting that in Seattle apartments are required to post the water bill for the entire complex.

"We're going to sit down with her and make sure everything is working properly," vows Jim Spahn, communication director for Colonial Properties, the real estate investment trust that owns Autumn Hill and more than 250 other properties in 14 states–- and which insists that the hot water metering is accurate.

John Smith lives in the same building, has a washer and dryer and two kids, and he estimates his water bill is around $60 a month. "If I got a $120 bill, I'd be asking some questions."

Two other interviewed tenants said their water/sewer bills, which include $10 for trash pick up, were around $40. Luke Ohlendorf's, however, is usually around $60, and he says it's been as high as $100 in February.

"They said they averaged the building," says Ohlendorf. "I definitely feel it's too high, but don't know where to go with it legally."

And then there's Jeremy Johnson. He moved in in August, and says he's had a $300 water bill. "It averages $120," he says.

Johnson isn't complaining, though. He's moving.

As for they Bosts, they just got their October water bill. It's $138.


Our area has the third highest water/sewer rates for a community this size in the state. Just imagine your bill X 5, well that's what's coming if they borrow $200 million to build the new dam/pipeline scheme. Right now, they can't even pay operating costs at RWSA, so your rates are rising, and they haven't even begun to borrow. Stop the madness, contact your supervisor and dredge now--we don't need a new dam and they know it. Affordable rental housing in the county --forget it, if this water plan goes thru--$200 a month bills will look low.

Charlottesville/Albemarle used to be in the lowest third for water/sewer rates, and what I meant to say, is that now we are in the top third for our rates, of similarly sized communities.

Re the Ragged Mtn Dam: It's about to fail! The dam is in very bad shape, has been for decades but we've had our fingers crossed and have been lucky. When it fails (not if) it will be a catastrophy along Moore's Creek. Regardless of how we should meet our future water needs, that dam needs to be replaced. Repairing is logistically very difficult and risky and could end up costing more.

This is what the government should be looking into instead of green roofs and apologies to dead people.

It is very simple. Pass a law that says the the complex must post its last years pricing for all units (with the exact apartment number redacted) so that people will KNOW what they are getting into. Marking up the water is the same as reselling it and I am pretty sure that is already illegal. If not make it so. The have to put the estimated mileage on a car sticker.. why not water useage on an apartment contract?

Everyone in Charlottesville should know that many apartment complex owners are very well connected. There might be a story there by itself.

Ernie, water bills were somewhat reasonable until a few years ago when we had a drought. They used the drought as an excuse to raise water rates. If people had to pay more, they would use less supposedly. Then they raised rates not long ago again, with the excuse being that people weren't using enough water. They raped people coming and going.

Eleven months ago they double charged me in December of 2008, with the excuse that I obviously had a leak somewhere. I had no leak and my consumption was normal the months before this overharge and the months afterwards. They stole $50.00 from me as far as I am concerned. Not one soul cared that I had been cheated. They are trained to say "you must have used it, you have to pay the bill!"

Water is a monopoly in this area. You put up with their crap and pay "the bill", or they turn your water off. It's as simple as that.

If management is overcharging shouldn't that be easy to figure out ? I agree water and sewer is very expensive here.

This area has outrageous water bills compared to what I was paying in Northern Virginia, what's up here? I'm a homeowner so it must be this water athority I've heard mentioned.

" Don't tax me and don't tax thee. Tax that man behind the tree."

And how many of the people on the Albemarle Service Authority who set these rates don't pay water/sewer bills--wasn't there someone named John Martin who said the cost of this new dam is going to be " painful", well, apparently not to thee, Liz Palmer or Don Wagner, who don't pay water bills. Let's at least appoint people who actually pay these rates, to set them --this is outrageous, what are they thinking. who would take on this much debt at a time when people can't even afford a home, let alone a water bill of $200 .

If you are new to the fact that water and sewer rates are rising in our community, and why, and don't want to see them get astronomically more expensive, please go to our web-site and get involved in planning for future water needs in a way we can all afford.

The water and sewer authority, RWSA/RSWA, that votes on these rates meets this Tuesday Nov. 24th, 2pm, at the Albemarle Service Authority (google for directions) public comment is taken at the beginning of the meeting.

This can't be right; sounds like price gauging to me. Even so, I agree with Nurse, our area seems to be out of step, and excessively expensive, compared to the Valley rates.