Like any other homeowner, California (Mountain View) resident Denise Salles receives a stack of bills in the mail each month. And like most people, the 60-year-old tech writer didn’t give these payments too much attention. Her eye would usually go straight to the amount owed, and that’s what she would write into her checkbook. But in recent days, Salles has gotten a painful lesson in how that trusting approach can go wrong. She learned a longstanding error on her utility bills had caused her to overpay more than $5,400 over the course of 20 years. Salles is demanding a refund from the city. But while city officials acknowledge they overcharged her, they say they have no obligation to pay back most of it.
This dispute started last month when she received a letter from the Mountain View Finance Department notifying her of the error in her sewer bill. A city accountant explained that Salles’ townhouse had been incorrectly charged for two sewer connections, instead of the one hookup she actually used. But the most startling thing about the error was how it compounded over time. The city had been overbilling her since 1996, when she first bought her house. In the letter, the city’s account technician said the city was refunding Salles for only the last three years of overcharged sewer bills, or about $1,050. He noted this was more than the city was obliged to pay back.
City officials say it remains a mystery exactly why Salles was overbilled for so many years. The error was reportedly first discovered as a routine matter as staffers prepared to send out bills to ratepayers. They gave assurances that the problem was isolated to Salles' address, and that no one else was affected.
The city was working to fix the error, but city officials were not necessarily responsible for causing it, Quinn said. She noted that the legal statute of limitation for recovering money from a public entity is only one year.
"We don't know how the mistake occurred but we want to fix it going forward," Quinn said. "When an overpayment like this occurs we have our policies that we follow, and we're going above and beyond that here."
This answer leaves Salles unsatisfied. She has written to the mayor and other city officials about the issue, and they assured her they would look into it. If that goes nowhere, she said she would consider some kind of legal action against the city.
"Part of what makes me angry here is the city's assumption that this is OK," she said. "This is a moral issue; it's the government versus a person who is attempting to live within the law."
So is the city at fault or should she have been better at checking her bills more rigorously?