Thousands of Broward residents racking up high water bills on empty lots

County says fees common practice

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – About eight years ago, a fire forced Dennis Holloway out of his Pompano Beach home.

When Holloway moved out, he didn't know that water bills were being sent to his abandoned home, and when he did notice the bills he thought they were a mistake. After all, no one was living on the property. 

"I think it was about $18,000," Holloway said. "For services not being rendered."

But those bills weren't a mistake. 

Thousands of Broward County residents whose water services have been turned off still get bills for water, sewer and sometimes garbage services. Some of these properties are vacant lots, with no sinks or bathrooms. 

The Broward County Water and Wastewater Services said the fees are part of an availability charge. 

The monthly bill for availability can be about $50, but unpaid bills accrue late fees at 2.5 percent making them grow exponentially.

"I think it's what we need to do to operate the system to the level that we do," Alan Garcia, director of the Broward County Water and Wastewater Services, said.

Garcia said the billing pays for the availability of water, regardless of whether a customer uses it or not.

He said the charge have been in effect since the early 1990s, though customers reported noticing it just in the last 10 years.

Garcia said the fees go to maintain the system that makes water available and that all property owners are responsible whether the property has a meter or not.

"They're considered a customer and they're subject to the availability charges," Garcia said. "They're a potential customer that that system has been built to meet the needs of that property."

Garcia also said the billing is common practice in local governments, including Miami-Dade County.

However, when Local 10 News contacted the Miami-Dade County Water & Sewer Department, spokeswoman Jennifer Messemer-Skold said the county does not bill for non-use.

"If a property owner disconnects their service and no usage has occurred, then no water bill is generated and no fees are assessed," Messemer-Skold said via email.

After the fire damaged his home, Holloway, along with this family, moved in with his mother.

Further complicating things is the fact that Holloway is blind, and his 82-year-old mother is also visually impaired.

"We were not notified as to why we were being charged this," Bettye Holloway said.

The Holloways aren't alone in their ordeal.

Manjit Kaur owns an empty lot in Pompano Beach and never opened an account with county for water services. He has a bill for $21,000.

Kaur said he is unable to sell or build on the land due to the costly debt.

"To me, it's absolutely corrupt," George Garrick, whose Fort Lauderdale home was torn down after hurricane damage in 2005, said.

Garrick said he didn't have water services at his property for years and was unable to sell the house until resolving thousands of dollars in fees.

"There is no sewer. There is no water," he said. "But the fee kept coming."

Joel Mintz, who teaches law at Nova Southeastern University with a focus on state and local law, said he believes the Broward County law is  "legally questionable."  

"If you don't use water and you don't need sewer service, why should you have to pay for that?" Mintz asked.

The Holloway family was able to get assistance from a county agency with their bill, and Dennis Holloway is finally able to start rebuilding his home.

"I've been angry," Holloway said. "I've been frustrated and I got to a point where I just want to give up." 

Mintz said it would take a lawsuit and judge's ruling to address the billing practices.

Garcia said in many cases the county will work with customers to address the added late fees. He encourages anyone with large bills to contact his office to work out an arrangement.

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