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4 takeaways from a year of investigating nightmare utility bills

A graphic for the Utility Bill of the Month series from the Gulf States Newsroom. The collage of photos shows a water meter in the top half of the photo. The bottom half shows a person reading over their energy bill.
Rashah McChesney
Gulf States Newsroom

This story is part of a crowdsourced project investigating utility billing issues in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Do you have a utility bill you’d like us to look into? Submit it here, and with your permission, we may use it in one of our monthly features.

Crawfish boils, college football and cornbread — all classic Southern traditions. Here’s another one: Complaining about utility bills.

Over the past year, the Gulf States Newsroom has investigated the nightmare water and power bills readers have sent in.

We’ve learned a lot from that time — from the danger of leaks to the frustration of customer service. Here are four lessons your bills taught us about the Gulf South’s collective utility problems.

Water providers are far behind in customer service

Tyler Stuart and Merritt Coscia finish some last-minute prep work ahead of opening Plume Algiers in New Orleans on November 18, 2023.
Drew Hawkins
Gulf States Newsroom
Tyler Stuart and Merritt Coscia finish some last-minute prep work ahead of opening Plume Algiers in New Orleans on November 18, 2023. Stuart and Coscia own and operate the restaurant together.

Poor customer service has been the most common frustration point across our reporting. Take Plume Algiers, a mom-and-pop Indian restaurant in New Orleans.

We reported on their billing woes back in December. At one point, owners Merritt Coscia and Tyler Stuart were facing an $8,500 bill due to a running toilet — a death sentence for the small restaurant.

Back then, whenever they would get in touch with the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board’s customer service team, they would often get mixed messages — from being told to make small payments to ignoring the bill entirely.

In April, however, they got another bill in the mail. This time, it said their account was delinquent. According to the new bill, they had to pay just over $6,700, and soon, or have their water cut off.

Coscia and Stuart got help from a lawyer and a city council member, which led to a hearing in early May. The bill was reduced to around $1,400.

“They basically said forget about the nearly $10,000 owed. We're going to get rid of that. You won’t owe any fees or anything like that. We're going to send you a new bill,” Coscia said. “We weren't able to go on a payment plan for it, so we had to pay it outright.”

Despite the bill reduction, confusing discrepancies from the S&WB continue.

When Coscia opened up her latest bill, it seemed to say the restaurant owed around $1,750. But when she went through the itemized section, that amount appeared as a positive credit.

“I'm not really sure if I should just keep paying what I regularly pay so that they don't come back at some point and say, this credit is bull and it wasn't meant to be on your bill,” Coscia said. “Guess I’ll give somebody a call in the morning.”

Power company customers have also had call line hair-pulling moments. Melissa Vegas described phoning Entergy New Orleans like spinning a wheel — she was never sure what kind of response she’d get, ranging from apologetic to aggression. After a year of calling, Vegas was still not satisfied with the utility's explanations for why her power bills were coming in north of $500.

Some of these utilities now recognize their customer service shortcomings and have made some progress. About a year ago, Birmingham Water Works launched a #billbetter campaign, while JXN Water created a new 24/7 customer service line.

Those services, however, are not perfect. One Jackson customer spent months disputing his bills before getting reimbursed $3,208. And Birmingham Water Works did not inform a Birmingham family about the warning signs for one of the most notorious and hard-to-spot causes of extreme water bills — leaks.

Leaks can be sneaky with no standards on how companies handle the cost

Claire Ahalt inspects her water meter outside of her home in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 28, 2023.
Stephan Bisaha
Gulf States Newsroom
Claire Ahalt inspects her water meter outside of her home in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 28, 2023. The meter kept “spinning, spinning, spinning” before Ahalt got someone to replace her leaking service line.

Over and over again, we heard stories of water leaks where the only sign was an expensive bill. Even a $20,000 leak went unnoticed — a burst pipe likely sent water pouring into a storm drain, so no telltale puddle.

Who actually pays for this wasted water — the customer, the utility, a mix of both — depends on where you live.

The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board will cover all the sewage fees and half the water costs for underground leaks. Meanwhile, the Birmingham Water Works Board changed its policy a year ago to wipe clean sewage and water costs from a leak, leaving the customer with just an average bill owed. JXN Water will adjust bills for a leak but does not say by how much.

“If one were to gather policy documents for 100 different systems, you would find 30 or 40 different approaches,” George Kunkel, principal at Kunkel Water Efficiency Consulting, said.

Hotter summers and harsh winters stretch safety nets thin

Will Burt stands in his apartment in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, on Feb. 13, 2024.
Stephan Bisaha
Gulf States Newsroom
Will Burt stands in his apartment in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, on Feb. 13, 2024. Burt is keeping his thermostat below 70 degrees to avoid another expensive winter bill.

If you haven’t noticed, it’s getting hot out.

The growing necessity of air conditioning in the summer is showing up in our power bills. A federal program does help low-income households cover those costs, but it doesn’t have nearly enough cash to meet the need.

In 2021, just 12% of people eligible for The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana received help.

“The scale of the problem is huge and the scale of the funding that is being deployed to address the problem is not,” said William Bryan, director of research at the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance.

A common misconception is that energy rates are significantly higher in our region. Instead, they’re below the national average. But homes in the Gulf South use more electricity than any other state, in large part because our houses and apartments are so energy inefficient.

Southern homes leak out warm air in the winter and cool air in the summer, with few regulations designed to prevent this. It's why Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana pay significantly more for power than most other states despite the below-average electricity rates.

Energy companies brim with power as utilities drowning

James Henley uncovers the water meter for the home he uses as his law office in Jackson, Mississippi, on Dec. 5, 2023.
Stephan Bisaha
Gulf States Newsroom
James Henley uncovers the water meter for the home he uses as his law office in Jackson, Mississippi, on Dec. 5, 2023. Workers from JXN Water took two days to find the meter because it had not been manually read in so long.

The bills we’ve covered come from both power and water providers, yet the reasons for their issues come from opposite directions.

For water providers, it’s a sore lack of revenue. Jackson continually blames a revenue shortfall for its many water crises. Usually, that involves the city pointing the finger at the state for not providing enough funding while the state points the fault back at Jackson.

A lack of cash flow for water providers is common well beyond Jackson. It could be because a place is too rural to have enough customers to pay for the service without jacking up prices, or a city is struggling to find a way to raise water rates without harming low-income customers who can’t afford it.

Power companies, meanwhile, often have more money than they should. State regulators overseeing Alabama Power ordered the company to rebate customers after it made too much in profit last year.

Investigations by Floodlight News, including one partnering with NPR, have accused Alabama Power of influencing regulators, news outlets and even civil rights groups with that cash. Floodlight News said the utility has received little attention as it raised electricity rates over the years.

Water utilities have also received plenty of allegations of corruption — take the accusations that the New Orleans S&WB has a “sex room” alongside its payroll fraud.

But often, water utility billing issues are due to them failing to keep their financial heads above water, while expensive electric bills can be traced in part back to just how much power these companies have.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

Stephan Bisaha is the wealth and poverty reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a regional collaboration between NPR and member stations in Alabama (WBHM), Mississippi (MPB) and Louisiana (WWNO and WRKF). He reports on the systemic drivers of poverty in the region and economic development.
Drew Hawkins is the health equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom. He covers stories related to health care access and outcomes across the region, with a focus on the social factors that drive disparities.