DAUPHIN COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — Janine Cheatham, born and raised in Steelton, has seen a lot here. But never before had she seen anything quite like the water bill she received for $780, other than the sewer bill she received for $790.
Cheatham says she pays $500 in rent for her efficiency apartment.
The water bill is from Pennsylvania-American Water, which purchased the city’s water system in 2019. The sewer bill is from the borough of Steelton, which bases those bills on Pennsylvania-American’s water meters. It’s logical enough, after all, that someone would pour about as much water down the drain as they get from the tap. Unless that is, they’ve allegedly taken 64,500 gallons from the tap. That’s enough water to fill a large swimming pool.
We jokingly asked Janine Cheatham, holding her water and sewer bills totaling nearly $1,600, where in the apartment she was hiding her pool.
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“I wish I knew because I sure would’ve been using it all summer,” she joked back. “I don’t even have a [bath]tub. I have a shower.”
She said she had called the utility and the borough, “and I was getting the runaround.” Representatives told her she had been underbilled in the past, and these bills were correcting those errors. But considering she had been receiving and paying bills all along, how could she have been underbilled by an amount greater than most families even use in many years?
“I didn’t know who else to call,” Cheatham said. So she called the abc27 newsroom, initially in tears.
During a visit Tuesday morning to her home, she told us she wasn’t alone. That became apparent when, as we were getting in our abc27 News vehicle, about to go back to the station to get to work helping her, she came running out holding her cell phone, with another Steelton resident on the line.
David Venturo, also a lifelong resident, saw a post by Cheatham in a neighborhood Facebook group that abc27 was at her home, listening to her story. Cheatham and Venturo didn’t know each other. But he quickly sent her a message, and she quickly called him. And instead of heading back to the newsroom, we went to meet Venturo, who was holding a bill for $1,855.62.
Worse, in Venturo’s case, the money had been deducted from his checking account automatically, leaving him with a negative balance. (He says his credit union, Belco, which automatically covered the deficit from a line of credit he had, was also helpful about starting its own process to try to recover the money so he could pay other bills, such as his mortgage.)
What could have caused what was almost certainly a mistake (a monthly bill for, by Venturo’s math, more than he usually pays in nearly five years?)
“They changed the water meter in my basement in June,” he said. “I had no idea. I thought it was routine maintenance.”
Venturo showed abc27 News the new meter, complete with an electronic transmitter so that it can be read from afar.
“After they put the new water meter in, then I got [the inflated] water bill,” she said.
abc27 News contacted Pennsylvania-American. Their response? Yes, Cheatham and Venturo are correct. No, they’re not alone. Yes, it has to do (indirectly, anyway) with the new meters. And no, they’re not on the hook for the money.
More precisely: It’s true, a spokesman told abc27 News, that some people had been underbilled in recent years. In some cases (although not in Venturo’s case, Venturo said), they had been paying estimated amounts because the old meters were broken or inaccessible. The idea was to try to recover the shortfalls. But a programming error caused the billing system to bill for all the water they had used (and already paid for) and then some, rather than the far smaller unbilled amounts of water.
“We are aware of the issue and are actively working to address it for our customers as quickly as possible,” the spokesman said. (Pennsylvania-American’s full statement is below.)
He estimated fewer than 100 customers are impacted by the error. He said the company is going through recent bills for all Steelton residents to identify and contact affected customers. And he said the company is working with the borough to ensure sewer bills, issues by the borough but based on information from the company, are corrected too.
Messages to the borough employee who had spoken with Cheatham and Venturo weren’t immediately returned Tuesday.
Tuesday afternoon, Cheatham and Venturo met in person for the first time on Venturo’s front porch.
“I’m glad you guys helped me,” Cheatham said to the abc27 crew. “And I met a new neighbor,” she said, smiling at Venturo.”
Venturo said he was grateful not only to the station but also to Cheatham for calling the newsroom and then for connecting him with the station. He had previously called Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) to open a case and was assured by representatives there that they would assist him.
Pennsylvania-American’s full statement to abc27 News:
“We are currently reviewing all of the accounts that may have been potentially affected by this system error in an effort to correct any discrepancies. A hold has been placed on these customers’ bills, and no late charges will be applied while we conduct reviews. We will contact customers, as needed, to correct errors as they are discovered and remedied. We are committed to providing accurate bills to our customers and will work with any customer whose bill does end up being higher than usual on a plan to make payments over time.”