The double-billing mistake that hit nearly 5,000 customers of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board sparked a widespread headache for those dependent on the utility.
But the extreme billing nightmare that walloped Reaping the Harvest Baptist Church has led to a genuine financial migraine for Pastor Troy Lawrence.
The August bill received by the church was $2,538, more than 25 times the church’s usual bill of less than $100.
Compounding the problem for this Lower Ninth Ward church is the fact that years ago, Lawrence set up his account on auto-draft, meaning the utility deducts payments directly from the church's bank account.
After their billing statement arrived on Aug. 18, Lawrence and his wife marched into the S&WB office to point out the massive over-charge and try to get the money returned.
Lawrence said an apologetic representative admitted it was the S&WB’s mistake, and assured the couple that the money would be credited to their account “within a couple of days.”
“They never returned a dollar of the amount that was taken out,” Lawrence said. “Now it’s been more than a month and we can’t even get anyone to answer the phone. Something is going on. The church needs its money back.”
WWL-TV tried to contact someone with the semi-autonomous city agency to address the problem. At the agency’s office on Joseph Street, nobody was available to comment. The phone number given to Lawrence to call for assistance went unanswered.
Lawrence and his wife have been calling that phone number every day.
“We call day after day, trying to find out what's going on, and nothing is happening,” Lawrence said.
While Lawrence continues to fight that battle, he recently was victimized again by the more recent mass over-billing snafu. S&WB officials said about 3.5 percent of all its customers were charged double for last month’s service.
The city said a shortage of water meter readers caused the problem. The shortage led the utility to enter estimated water usage amounts into its computer, only to have meter readers finally catch up and enter actual amounts shortly afterward.
To add insult to injury for the church, Lawrence was hit by that problem at the same time he was trying to resolve his previous problem. The church’s August bill was $491, more than five times the normal bill.
This time, though, the money wasn’t automatically taken from the church’s bank account. That’s because Lawrence immediately halted that service after the S&WB nearly drained the church’s bank account.
“A church has to pay bills just like everybody else,” Lawrence said. “We really need our money.”