On Wednesday, August 8, Ellen James (not her real name) sat down at the desk in her Scripps Ranch home and paid her $150 water bill online, something she’d done a hundred times before. Only, this time she forgot to transfer the money into the proper account. On Thursday morning, she received a notice of insufficient funds from the bank. Realizing her error, James transferred $157 into the account from which the payment would be withdrawn.
“I assumed they would just put it through again,” she tells me over the phone. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t put it through again.”
On Friday afternoon, just as James was coming out of the shower, her son answered the door to find a San Diego Water Department employee, who said that he’d just shut off their water. James ran outside to flag him down, but he was already gone. Checking online, she saw that the money still sat in her bank account. Immediately, she logged in to the Customer Care Center on the City of San Diego website and paid the bill again, this time including the requisite $30 shut-off-order processing fee.
“At that point, I called them and said, ‘You can’t leave me at home with kids and no water. The money is sitting there,’” she says. “They said, ‘We understand,’ and at 6:00 that night, we got our water back.”
On Monday morning, James received a notice in the mail stating that she was required to pay a security deposit of almost $350. The notice surprised and infuriated her. She and her family had been living in the same house for 17 years, and though they had on occasion been late with a payment, they’d never been delinquent.
“Can’t they look at the history of somebody?” she says. “Can’t they see that, okay, I’m late, but how long did it take me to get it right? In today’s times, this is how you’re behaving?”
James and her husband had closed their struggling business in 2011, but they had still managed to pay their bills. They’d had to juggle to do so.
“We’ve been hit pretty hard because business owners are not entitled to unemployment or any type of assistance. [We had] 48 employees. They all got unemployment, and we got jack,” she says. “Where we’re at is not because we’re a bunch of lazy slugs. We’ve been working our tails off.”
Her infuriation was compounded by the fact that she’d recently applied for food stamps but was awarded only $109 for the remainder of August and $170 for September. This was for James and her husband only. The family was not eligible for food stamps for a four-person household because James’s two children, home from college for the summer, were over 18.
“It’s funny,” she says, “because Feeding America told me that those people out there get $500 or $600.”
When asked to explain further, she says, “You know, people that are...illegals.”
On the City of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department website, a page entitled “Security Deposits” outlines department policies. New accounts require a security deposit unless the “customer has an existing active account with a 12-month history of consecutive on-time payments.” And the amount of the deposit is “based on the prior pattern of consumption at the service location.” That amount can be “increased in $100 increments” for a handful of reasons, including two or more returned payments within a 12-month period.
The returned payment in August was the second for the James household in a 12-month period. The other had been in October 2011, when James had repaid the bill as soon as she realized that there was a problem. That time, the water had not been shut off, as it had never been the whole 17 years her family has lived in this house.
On receipt of the current notice, James phoned the water department once again. The automated system told her that someone would call back within 24 hours. The call came on Wednesday, while James was in a meeting. When James returned the call, she had to leave another message.
“Finally, on Thursday, someone called back, and I said, ‘This [security deposit] is unacceptable. Why should I have to give this $350?’” she says. “I went up the chain and spoke to her supervisor, who said, ‘That’s our policy. The only thing we can do is break it up into three payments.’ I said, ‘Why do you think if I’m having trouble paying $150 that $250 or $500 will be any easier?’”
No one James got on the phone was able to help her. She heard, “Sorry, that’s just our policy” again and again.
“[They said], ‘Oh, we get calls like this all the time,’” she says. “That’s what’s staggering. So if you get calls like this all the time, don’t you think it’s time to change your policy?”
James obtained the names of higher-ups who would be able to waive the security deposit, and for days she left messages, receiving no returned calls. In one message, James stressed that she would be consulting her attorney and taking action as necessary. Her call was still not returned.
On Monday, August 13, James received a water bill for $608.06. It included water-usage fees, a credit for the $30 service-termination fee she’d already paid (she had to pay them to turn off her water), a $25 service-restoration fee (she also had to pay them to turn it back on), a $25 returned-check fee, and $346.80 for a security deposit.
“There is no way they’re getting that $350 from me,” she says. “I don’t care if they break it up into one penny a day. No way. It’s coercion. They’re strong-arming me, saying if you don’t give me a security deposit, I’m going to turn off your water, which is a basic human right that my taxes do pay for.”
According to the City’s website, however, public utilities is an enterprise-fund department, which means it “receives no revenues from sales or property taxes, operating solely on funds from rates and service charges.”
On Monday, September 3, James tells me that she was finally able to get someone on the phone who could, and was willing to, waive the security deposit.
“It was two weeks of persistent action. And the lady said, ‘I’m going to do you this onetime courtesy, but if it ever happens again...,’” James says. “I’ve lived here for 17 years, and I’ve never had my water shut off. I was being reprimanded.”
And after a moment’s pause, she says with a hint of bitterness, “I had to be profusely grateful.” ■