by Erica C. Barnett

According to my latest water bill, issued by a Texas-based company called Minol-MTR, my water consumption in March cost $24.46. A mysterious $5 "administrative fee," along with other service costs, brought my total bill to more than $45.

You might think I spend all my time doing the laundry, or washing my fleet of SUVs. Not so. In fact, I live alone in a one-bedroom apartment, with no dishwasher, washing machine, or outside water faucets, making me a veritable poster child for water conservation.

So why are my bills, and those of the thousands of Seattle renters who pay private companies in order to use our public utility, so high? Thanks to a completely unregulated market, companies like Minol-MTR--one of a growing number of companies commissioned by landlords to bill tenants for water--don't have to reveal how they came up with a tenant's bill, how much water a building is using, or whether a tenant is paying more than his or her fair share of a building's total consumption. "When you've got a single person in a one-bedroom and two or three people living next door, there's no way to know who's paying what," says Seattle City Council Member Judy Nicastro. Marisa Hancock, a housing counselor with the Fremont Public Association (FPA), calls third-party billing outrageous: "The bills seem totally arbitrary and random," she says.

In response to escalating complaints, Nicastro proposed legislation that would force billing companies to own up to what they're charging tenants and why, and limit a building's total bill to its total water usage. Although Minol-MTR vice president Suzanne Perry claims tenants' bills are "based on overall consumption," a comparison of my bills from Minol with my building's statement from Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) revealed that I pay more for my water than my allocated "share"--from a few pennies to nearly nine dollars a month. But the bottom line is, there's nothing on Minol-MTR's bills to indicate exactly how many gallons of water an individual unit used. And because SPU won't release bills to tenants without a written public records request, finding out what you actually owe can be a monumental task.

Billing companies like to claim that paying for water directly (rather than as part of the rent) encourages conservation, by tying water use to tenants' monthly bills. Minol-MTR's statements tout conservation right on the bill, next to a mint-green Earth superimposed on the company's logo. Co-president Perry claims, reasonably enough, that "when someone has to pay something, they tend to be more conservative and not waste it." But that theory doesn't wash when you have no idea what your bill is for. "It runs counter to human nature," says Kit Dizotell, a West Seattle renter who's made ridding the city of third-party billing something of a personal crusade. "I am not going to deprive myself of anything if I know the guy down the hall is running a daycare center out of his apartment." And even Minol's own customer service reps don't buy their company's conservation rap; when I called to ask why my bills were so high, a Minol representative told me that because I live alone (and thus pay slightly less with Minol's formula than a couple living together), "it's a good deal because you can use however much water you want."

Because water-billing contracts are written into a tenant's lease, failing to pay for a month or two doesn't just mean extra penalties--tenants can actually be kicked out of their apartments. Don Nelson, a Skyway tenant who Minol said owed $800 in unpaid water bills and late fees, got an eviction notice even after he paid off half the balance. "You can't control the process at all," Nelson says. If you get in a tough spot financially, "you can always turn your thermostat down. But there's no way to control your water bill."

Nicastro's proposed regulations are a good first step toward restricting third-party billing. But banning estimated billing altogether--a move Dizotell advocates, but Nicastro says she isn't willing to make--would go further to rid Seattle of unfair billing practices while still allowing landlords to charge tenants for water the old-fashioned way: rolling it into the rent, so tenants know what they'll be paying from month to month.

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