Opa-locka residents find themselves drowning in debt thanks to high water bills

(WSVN) - Some residents in Opa-locka say their water bills are leaving them soaked. They say their bills just don’t make sense, and it turns out, they have good reason to question them. The Nightteam’s Kevin Ozebek investigates.

For this Opa-locka mother of two, there’s no greater source of stress than the water that pours out of her tap.

Vasti Pinales owes more than $5,000 to the city in water and sewer bills.

Vasti Pinales, high water bills: “I don’t want to come home one day, and then I don’t have water.”

Pinales sifted through her water bills with 7News.

Kevin Ozebek: “So this is just a normal average one?”

And says her average monthly bill is about $50.

That’s why she was shocked last year when she got two bills for more than $1,700, another for $746 and two more for over $100. The water bills then dropped back down to near normal.

Vasti Pinales: “I know I did not use that. I wouldn’t mind paying for something that I know I use.”

George Suarez at first laughed when the city sent him this water bill for more than $1,100 back in September 2016.

George Suarez, high water bills: “I walked into the house with the water bill and was like, ‘Oh, this gotta be a joke.'”

He quickly realized Opa-locka Public Works wasn’t joking.

The next month, he was charged more than $1,200.

A plumber proved the only leak was coming from the city meter.

George Suarez: “It was scary because then you’re thinking that you gotta make your mortgage payment, and then you’re going to have to pay a ridiculous water bill.”

Miami-Dade County is in the process of taking over water billing and meter reading in Opa-locka. The county tells 7News it has had to replace more than 4,000 of the city’s 5,200 meters here. Some of them weren’t compatible with the county’s system, but others were outdated, not calibrated or just broken.

Michael Pizzi, attorney: “The City of Opa-locka has been outright stealing money from the residents and businesses for more than 10 years.”

Attorney Michael Pizzi sued Opa-locka on behalf of Suarez. The case has turned into a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all city residents.

In the suit, Pizzi claims Opa-locka water customers have been subjected to “…inflated water bills … due to water meters that do not work…”

Tallahassee also investigated the water department.

In this audit released last month, the state found “…water and sewer service charges were not always assessed in accordance with rates prescribed by City ordinances…”

Suarez says after he sued, the city wiped his water balance away.

Kevin Ozebek: “Do you feel you were ripped off by your own city?”

George Suarez: “Yes, short straight to the point, yes.”

But Pinales still finds herself drowning in water debt with that massive $5,000 balance.

Vasti Pinales: “I’m going to pay my bill with Miami-Dade, but I still want my bill resolved with Opa-locka.”

As for Opa-locka’s take on what’s to blame for this mother’s billing misery, we don’t know since the city’s public works director never answered our request for comment.

Miami-Dade County Public Works tells 7News that by the end of this month, they hope to have taken over nearly all meter reading and billing for Opa-locka, but if residents have outstanding bills with Opa-locka Public Works, the county can’t help.

That will still need to be taken up with the City of Opa-locka.

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