After a month without his wife and two children in his home, George Suarez thought that he would be saving money on his utility bills. But in July 2016 when his family members returned from a month-long trip to the Dominican Republican, his water bill that is usually around $50 was $1,171.
His wife, Tania, went to Opa-locka’s water billing department to clear up what she was sure was a typo.
“She told them, ‘This has to be a mistake,’” said Suarez. City employees told Tania that the water bill may have skyrocketed because of a leak in the house or someone may be stealing their water.
“I have cameras in the back and the front of the house,” Suarez told The Miami Times. The couple hired a plumber to check the four-bedroom, two-bathroom house for leaks.
There were none.
By the time his wife made it back to City Hall to follow up on the dispute, they received another bill for $900, followed by another for $1,200. The highest bill the Suarezes saw before that was $71. From July to December 2016, they had a balance of around $34,000. The couple decided they were not going to back down without a fight.
They took the fight all the way to court. The Suarezes became the led plaintiffs on a lawsuit against Opa-locka that alleges the city breached its contract with its customers because it did not provide accurate billing and spent the customers’ deposits. Now, a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge has opened the floodgates for more than 30,000 customers to get their money back. Judge Beatrice Butchko certified the case as a class-action lawsuit on Wednesday, April 10.
George Suarez said it is not about the money for him.
“It’s about fixing a broken system,” he said. “It’s about the people who don’t have a voice.”
Back in 2016, Suarez took his issue to the citizens' forum during the City Commission meetings every second and fourth Wednesday of each month. Suarez said each time he was ushered out.
“They took my number, but they never did anything,” he said.
Airia Austin, the current Public Works director, offered to credit a majority of the bills as long as they paid the fees for “the recycling of the water.” Suarez declined.
“You are trying to make us pay for water that we did not use,” he recalled telling Austin.
The Suarezes took to the streets. Tania made flyers.
“If you have a problem with your water bill, please contact …” the flyer stated. They were able to engage 12 others, some of whom joined the lawsuit.
A financial oversight board ordered an inspection of the meters in March 2017. An independent contractor attempted to visit 5,637 meters and found that the meter readers operate with 34 percent accuracy, well below the recommended 98.5 percent read-rate for a healthy system. Of the meters the contractor checked, 3,049 or 52 percent, need replacement or repair; and 783 were inaccessible or could not be located. About 1,905 or 33 percent of meters, worked as per industry standard. The contractor didn’t read 216 meters, about four percent of the total number.
George and Tania Suarez were joined by Roscoe Pendleton, Adel and Charaf Raad, Steven Barrett, Natasha and Alfonso Ervin III and Taxes by Natasha Ervin. The group of residents met with attorneys Michael Pizzi, Benedict Kuehne and David Reiner. The civil suit was filed on April 7, 2017. Between the group, they have seven water service accounts in Opa-locka.
The city currently has about 16,000 water accounts. However, because of the class-action status, all water customers going as far back as 2013 can now join the lawsuit and seek damages.
A class-action lawsuit in a civil lawsuit that is brought by one person or a few people on behalf of a larger group of people who have suffered similar harm or have a similar claim, according to it’s legal definition. The court will decide how to divide any recovery at the end of a class-action suit. The lawsuit is seeking more than 15,000 in damages. Attorney Pizzi said the city is looking at paying more than $30 million in damages.
The attorneys representing Opa-locka in the case could not be reached for comment.
Suarez still speaks during the citizens’ forum on the selected Wednesdays, and he said he attends Meet Me Mondays, an open forum with Commissioner Joseph Kelley.
Suarez said his issue now is that he is being under-billed.
“Now, we are paying $15 a month,” said Suarez and added that they are also receiving three statements on one bill.
‘ME AND MY LITTLE DOG’
Former Opa-locka Commissioner Gail Miller told the Commission on March 14 that she is fed up with the bill discrepancies. Her bill went from $35 to $309.
“Ain’t nobody in my house but me and my little dog,” she said holding the bill in her hand. “I bathe twice a day. The groomer comes out and grooms her.”
Miller said she would not be paying the bill until it is fixed.
“I want to talk to the manager, the lawyer or somebody!” said Miller. “So that they can square this away because I am tired.”
Another resident at the meeting said that she received two water bills. One of them was from the county and the other was from Opa-locka. She doesn’t know which one to pay.
City Manager Newall Daughtrey said the billing system will be migrated to Miami-Dade County by June. He added that Opa-locka could not simply just “write-off” the old bills because the city needs the money to “catch up” with what it owes Miami-Dade County.
Daughtrey said before each commission meeting and even third Saturday, he and his staff address citizens’ concerns over the water bills.
“We review the account and work with them on what they owe us or what we owe them,” he said.
Once the bill migration is completed in June, the city will compare three months worth of its billing to three months of the county’s to determine if the customers have been overbilled or if they have underpaid.
“We will give the residents reasonable time to pay us with the understanding that if the county does not receive payment in 10 days, the service will be shut off,” said Daughtrey.