by Frank DeLoache

Since last spring, when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities created a new appeal process for unexplained high water bills, the utility has granted adjustments to 456 customers, according to the utility’s records.

Spread over 11 months, that’s a miniscule number of successful appeals, but the numbers show that customers still have an avenue to pursue unexplained water bills that they don’t believe have a logical explanation.

“In the scheme of our 250,000 accounts, these are the handful of bills that, for whatever reason, defy explanation,” utility spokeswoman Karen Whichard said. “We have worked with these customers to the end of the process, looking at everything from potential leaks to long-term account history to try to determine the cause.”

Since Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton approved the new appeal process 11 months ago, the number of successful appeals has ranged from 22 in May 2010 to as high as 56 a month later, in June 2010, according to the utility’s records. Successful appeals stayed consistent in December (54), January (50) and February (53), the last month for which appeals were available.

With approximately 250,000 customers, the 53 successful appeals in February amount to just 0.02 percent of all the bills in that month.

The Charlotte City Council approved the policy on March 23 at the request of Barry Gullet, shortly after he took over as director of the utility. At the time, the customer-service staff made a final decision on any customer appeal or complaint, but customers had complained that the utility should have a published policy that they could follow and know what to expect.

The policy does not apply to every high bill. Instead, the process calls for:

• An initial check by an inspector, who will examine the utility’s equipment and also check for apparent leaks on the customer’s side of the meter.

• If the inspector doesn’t find an obvious cause for the higher bill, a supervisor will visit the home, check maintenance history of the utility’s equipment and review the customer’s water-use history.

• Still lacking an explanation, the utility then defers the excessive part of the bill for two months to ensure the customer’s water use returns to lower historical trends. If higher water use continues, the customer remains liable for all the charges.

If the customer’s water bill returns to the lower historical average, however, utility officials will waive the excess part of the earlier bill.