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S&WB tells customers to ignore unusually high bills during coronavirus pandemic

While over-charges have been a problem for years, Korban said the issue has been exacerbated by a shortage of meter readers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

NEW ORLEANS — Billing problems at the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board are nothing new. But since the coronavirus pandemic, the number of estimated bills has spiked, leading to an accompanying spike in complaints about outrageous charges.

Now the agency is taking one step to ease the stress on unhappy customers, and it announced the new policy in a tweet.

“We hear your concerns about your bill,” the utility tweeted Thursday. “We are asking customers who are seeing higher than normal estimates to please continue paying an amount consistent with past use.”

S&WB Director Ghassan Korban had addressed the increase in erroneous bills at the last board meeting in July

“We feel that we're almost in an emergency situation, and I don't use that word lightly,” Korban said at the July 22 meeting.

While over-charges have been a problem for years, Korban said the issue has been exacerbated by a shortage of meter readers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, more than half of the agency’s water bills have come from algorithm-driven estimates rather than actual meter readings.

And many out-of-whack bills have resulted, in some cases multiplying a household bill by a multiple of 10 or 20 times previous averages.

While Meg Lousteau’s bill from 2019 didn’t jump nearly that high, she said she was charged $234 one month even though she had moved out of her house and water usage was zero.

She’s been fighting to correct it ever since she learned about the bill after being flagged by her credit agency.

“I began what is now a seven-month process of trying to figure out what  had happened and get it resolved. And I still don't know that it's been resolved,” Lousteau said. “It’s so frustrating. It has driven me to the edge of reason.”

City Council member Joe Giarrusso said his office has been bombarded by calls from constituents complaining about sky-high bills. He welcomes the S&WB’s announcement to work with customers until bills can be corrected.

“This is the good formal acknowledgment that's out there, so that's what we want to be able to tell people,” Giarrusso said.

Giarrusso said he hopes the tweeted message will mean fewer complaints to his office. But he knows it will be more work for the agency down the road to get the bills right once and for all.

“To the sense that they're taking some stress off of those people, that's great,” Giarrusso said. “But on the other hand, now it means there's going to have to be this whole-scale investigation into these bills and what do people really owe.”

In another major announcement by the S&WB on Friday, the utility said it has extended its pause on shut-offs and late fees until the end of August.

“We will revisit the timing on resuming these policies at the end of August,” press secretary Courtney Barnes wrote.

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