/Nightmare in West Seattle: The case of the $26,000 water and sewer bill

Nightmare in West Seattle: The case of the $26,000 water and sewer bill

Chris Rose had been warned by Seattle Public Utilities to check his West Seattle property for a water leak. But when he went online to check his water and sewer bill earlier this month, he was staggered.

It added up to $25,787.73.

A water-meter reading done by Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) on March 28 showed that an astonishing 976,000 gallons of water had gushed out. The water had obviously gone somewhere, but it couldn’t be seen on the surface.

“So overwhelming,” Rose wrote in an email alerting The Seattle Times to his plight. “We are blue-collar folks and can’t just write a check to cover it all. I sold my ’69 Ford truck, my bicycle and my skis to get some extra cash.”

Rose and his wife, Susan, have a  1-½-year-old daughter, Julia. He works as a building engineer for a downtown office tower. Susan stays at home.

A meter reader had put a leaflet in Rose’s mailbox advising him to check for leaks between the water meter to his home. Rose went outside his home on 45th Avenue Southwest and started looking. All dry. He looked for the meter. Nowhere around.

Rose bought this house near the Fauntleroy ferry dock in 2011. He says he had no reason to look at the meter, and never experienced a problem requiring a water shut-off. He just paid his bills on time, with water and sewer averaging $110 each two-month billing cycle.

He called SPU, and the day after he received the leaflet, a Saturday, a crew came out.

“They look everywhere. They drive up and down the street,” says Rose.

His meter was finally found across the street, on the corner of the next block.

That’s when Rose went online to look at his bill.

$6,905.81 for water, $18,881.92 for sewer. Total: $25,787.73.

“My heart sunk. I just felt sickened,” he says.

Rose says that there was another reason why he was so overwhelmed by the giant bill. He has been diagnosed with PTSD.  An Air Force vet who served from 1992 to 1997 in support of Operation Desert Shield/Storm, he attends support meetings twice a week.

“I served in Saudi Arabia. One of the places I was at got blown up by a Scud missile before I was there, and we lost 26 people. Then it got blown up again by a terrorist attack, killing 19 more,” he remembers. “I wouldn’t admit it then, but I was scared as hell.”

Veterans Affairs counselors have taught Rose coping skills, such as “mindfulness,” which includes such techniques as breathing exercises and “do not judge your thoughts,” he says.

Says Susan about how her husband is dealing with this situation, “It’s definitely taken him to the ceiling of what he can handle.”

But as the story evolved, the money worries remained but life was calmer.

“I got a very nice call from SPU yesterday,” Rose wrote in an email earlier this week. The guy from SPU, said Rose, “said he heard from his PIO (public information officer) that we needed some help. It was an actual conversation.”

It turned out that the utility has a policy of adjusting bills for such leaks – forgiving 100 percent of sewer costs and 50 percent of water costs.

In 2018, the utility made 673 such adjustments to residential customers at an average of $842.

The adjustments ranged from $10.66 to $46,324.66.

The latter sum was knocked off an initial bill of $60,661.74 sent to a home in Shoreline, says Sabrina Register, SPU spokeswoman.  Nobody saw the leak because it ran into a nearby creek.

Rose’s bill was reduced to about $3,500.

Of course, there is a caveat. There always is.

“They are responsible for underground water leaks on their property and from their property to their water meter,” says Register.  “They are responsible for getting repair related to water leaks inspected and approved by the city.”

A repair means excavating the street to the likely leak location and then getting it fixed so it passes inspection.

That could put Rose back “anything from $2,500 to $5,000,” and maybe “at least $40,000,” says Simon Calis, owner of Clearwater Leak Detection of Black Diamond, whom Rose hired to find the leak.

Even with that SPU bill adjustment, we’re talking total costs of anywhere from $6,000 (adjusted water bill plus a you-lucked-out repair bill) to $43,500 (adjusted water bill plus a you-didn’t-luck-out repair bill).

The utility says the likely reason for the unusual placement of Rose’s water meter is “that this was a cost-saving decision made by the developer in the 1950s, when the house was constructed.”

The city says that if Rose wants the meter moved, he would have to foot the bill. And that has the potential of dealing with gas lines and carving up more of the street.

For now, the neighbor just north of the Roses is letting them run a hose from his home to theirs.

The couple is hoping that fixing the busted pipe will come in at reasonable cost.

It’s about time Chris Rose’s luck turned, and, on Thursday, it did.

He says he got a call from an SPU representative.

“He said that my case had become high-profile. They found a small clause that’ll mean they’ll cover 100 percent of the water bill once the repair is done and approved,” says Rose. “Wow.”