NEW ORLEANS — The pastor of the New Testament Baptist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward is taking the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board to court.
According to a lawsuit filed in federal court on Friday, Rev. Jack Battiste claims the utility removed a meter and cut off service to a home he owns on Tupelo Street without proper notice.
He was in the process of contesting a water bill for more than $3,300 for the unoccupied property.
“I think the thing that was most amazing was the total disregard for communication and respect of the customer,” Battiste said. “Why would they give you these astronomical bills and not sit down and talk with you, give you an explanation or give you a form of justification.”
Without a water meter, Battiste can’t rent out the property he and his wife rely on for income.
The lawsuit claims the utility violated the pastor’s due process rights and breached the 1977 Fair Debt Collections Practices Act.
“There are hundreds of people across the city that are experiencing the same thing,” Battiste said.
Real estate developer A.P. Marullo is one of them.
He also sued the Sewerage and Water Board in a separate action after he said the monthly bill on one of his properties went from $800 to $13,000.
Marullo says while the bill was being disputed and investigated, the utility sent the bill to collections.
“They reported the activity to the credit bureaus and my credit score plummeted roughly 240 points,” Marullo said. “Given my business, being a real estate developer, being on a bank board, it was a serious situation for me.”
A state court sided with Marullo, and he says the SWBNO removed the blemish on his credit report.
He’s now paying Battiste’s legal expenses in what could become a class action against the utility.
He is also setting up a website called stopdat.info, where customers can share their complaints and join the lawsuit.
“We strongly feel the residents, citizens and business owners are not being given that due process and feel like it’s on a large scale,” Marullo said. “It’s a little disheartening.”
In a related matter, New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno filed a resolution urging the Sewerage and Water Board to stop the practice of sending customers’ bills into collections while those bills are still in dispute.
“It seems to me to be a very harmful type of policy, one that can impact someone who is trying to get employment or even get housing,” Moreno said.
Moreno is also authoring an ordinance that would have the force of law and require the SWBNO to stop that debt collection practice.
“When you have an organization that is already plagued with these issues of incorrect bills why would you be extra punitive to your customers when you know that your organization already has a problem with incorrect bills,” Moreno said.
The utility released this statement:
"The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans is committed to working with our customers who have a past due account. Shutting off services and sending our customers to collection agencies are options of last resort. We are continually working to improve the quality and timeliness of our billing processes, dispute resolutions, and overall customer service. We encourage customers to reach out to us directly at 52-WATER or firstname.lastname@example.org so we can work together towards a solution."