(WSVN) - They got a water bill for $28,000 for using 1.3 million gallons of water. Impossible to do, that’s what they said, and when they were told they had to pay that bill, they turned to Help Me Howard with Patrick Fraser.

Virgen and her mother Berta are close, very close.

Virgen Ortega: “I always said my mom was never going to a nursing home, that I would close her eyes when the day came.”

They shared an apartment for years, getting by by combining their small Social Security checks.

Virgen Ortega: “Some months better, some months worse. It all depends on what needs to be paid.”

And then, one day, the 92-year-old Berta got the bill of all bills to be paid.

Virgen Ortega: “We got a $28,000 water bill for the last three months.”

Instead of their normal $185 bill for around 16,000 gallons of water, this one was $28,000 for using 1,301,520 gallons of water.

Virgen Ortega: “I panicked. I mean, I couldn’t believe it.”

Virgen called Miami-Dade Water. She says they came to check out her duplex.

Virgen Ortega: “No broken pipes, no leaks. We had a plumber come out and check even under the house.”

A couple of months earlier, Virgen had seen flooding near the sidewalk.

Virgen Ortega: “This tree over here and this corner all the way to the gas station. There was a lot of, this much water.”

Virgen didn’t appeal the bill since she assumed it was a mistake, and the water department would correct it.

Niurka Lorenzo, landlord: “And he said there’s no way that they could have spent $28,000.”

Virgen’s landlord spoke to a plumber about the bill for 1.3 million gallons of water.

Niurka Lorenzo: “The streets would have to be flooded for a month for that to happen.”

Nothing was changed or corrected in the apartment.

The next bill was back to normal, about $180, plus that one-time $28,000 change or a payment plan offered by the county.

Virgen Ortega: “The payments were $2,992. That’s too much.”

Do the math.

Virgen and Berta use about 16,000 gallons every three months. To use 1.3 million gallons would take them 20 years.

Impossible, they say.

Niurka Lorenzo: “And I always said, ‘Oh, if I’ve ever have a problem, I’m going to call Help Me Howard.'”

Well, Howard, do you have to pay for water you believe it’s impossible for you to use?

Howard Finkelstein, 7News legal expert: “The answer is no, you don’t have to pay it, but if you don’t, they can cut your water off. However, the water agencies have discretion, and a customer using 1.3 million gallons of water just seems physically impossible in this case. The water department should use that discretion and cancel the bill. Legally, they can do that.”

I contacted Miami-Dade Water and Sewer, where they told me they empathize with Mrs. Ortega’s situation.

That WASD professional staff also evaluated the residence’s infrastructure and found it to be working properly.

They then agreed to remove the $14,000 portion of the bill for sewage and cut the water portion from $14,000 to $8,000.

I asked them to reduce it to zero.

I was told the Miami-Dade County Master Bond Ordinance 93-134 currently prohibits the WASD team from reducing the balance any further.

Virgen Ortega: “No, that doesn’t help at all. I mean, we didn’t use that water.”

Getting the bill from $28,000 to $8,000 helps, but Virgen says she can’t afford to pay that either.

Virgen Ortega: “No, sir. Never, never, never, never.”

In my latest conversation with the Miami-Dade Water spokesperson, they had a suggestion about the possible cause of the massive water use.

It’s going to take some time for me to dig into it.

And while I work on that, the county said they will not cut Berta and Virgen’s water.

If I can solve the mystery, Berta and Virgen will no longer owe that $8,000. I will let you know what I find.

Flooded by a problem? Don’t let it drain you? Leak it to us, so we can make a splash for you.

With this Help Me Howard, I’m Patrick Fraser, 7News.

Email: helpmehoward@wsvn.com
Reporter: Patrick Fraser at pfraser@wsvn.com
Miami-Dade: 305-953-WSVN
Broward: 954-761-WSVN

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