Mayor Lightfoot Touts Utility Billing Relief Program, But It's Not Relevant To Those Who Tell Us They're Getting Hosed

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday touted the city's Utility Billing Relief program for those who have trouble paying their water bills. But the people who have told us they're getting hosed with bills for water they didn't use don't qualify for the program. CBS 2's Tara Molina reports.

Video Transcript

- Now on Hour 18, the mayor taking time out today to tout bringing safe, affordable drinking water to everyone in Chicago. But for two years, my colleague Brad Edwards has exposed unfair and potentially unlawful water billing practices through his series, Getting Hosed-- Chicago homeowners out sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, the most recent a retired Chicago Public School teacher with dementia.

- They want $57,000 for water. That doesn't make any kind of sense.

BRAD EDWARDS: A waterless six flat, not lived in for years--

- One, two, three.

BRAD EDWARDS: You give so much--

- Oh, I'm glad you're strong.

BRAD EDWARDS: --to those in need.

- OK.

BRAD EDWARDS: Then you become in need.

- When we heard about the mayor at the water plant, we sent our Tara Molina to ask questions. And Tara, you got to ask two of them today.

TARA MOLINA: Erica, two questions for the mayor on an issue that we've worked to to cover for years. Now her response to a specific question on our series exposing these issues-- it might surprise you.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: I will say that I don't stay up long enough to watch the evening news.

TARA MOLINA: Mayor Lori Lightfoot's response when pressed about this--

- Water shut off at the street, water shut off in the building.

TARA MOLINA: -the most recent installment of the CBS 2 Investigators series Getting Hosed.

BRAD EDWARDS: It only gets fixed when we get in the mix.

TARA MOLINA: Beatrice Richie-- 91 years old with dementia, another Chicago resident being charged by the city exorbitantly for water she's not using.

Her water was shut off. That was confirmed by two city plumbers. And she had a $57,000 bill for a six flat. She can't pay off a $57,000 water bill.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: So I'm obviously not familiar with that particular case.

TARA MOLINA: The particulars of Beatrice's case-- a boarded up vacant six flat she once rented years ago-- again, with no water.

- And I'm going to let them know that the water's off here.

TARA MOLINA: And a more than $57,000 water bill. You're hearing from the second City of Chicago plumber who confirmed there's not more than $50,000 of water running or leaking here.

- They'll square up the bill for you, because that ain't right. I mean, $52,000 for this [BLEEP]? You're not even using any water.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: Obviously if there's an issue, we'll respond to it.

TARA MOLINA: The mayor's response today focused on the city's utility billing relief program.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: What we want to do is make sure that these basic human rights-- water being key-- that people have access to it. And I hope you'll spend some of your time publicizing the availability of this utility relief.

TARA MOLINA: The relief program cuts water bills in half for those who own, live in, and appear on a home's bill and who make less than $38,625 a year as a family of four. Those in the program can eventually have all of their past balance forgiven if they make all their payments for a year.

But landlords like Beatrice don't qualify. Those who have inherited a property, renters, or families of four making more than 39 grand a year don't qualify either. Actually, none of the people we've interviewed since the relief program was put in place have qualified for it.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: You're always going to be able to find one or two people who haven't been able to take advantage of the program. What I hope you're doing is that you're finding those folks-- is encouraging them to take advantage of the program.

TARA MOLINA: Again, Beatrice can't take advantage. Others being affected by the city's billing practices can't either. We've tried to explain that in our reporting at the press conference today and in follow ups with the mayor's press secretary, whose salary you pay. But again--

LORI LIGHTFOOT: I will say that I don't stay up long enough to watch the evening news.

TARA MOLINA: And we still don't have a real response from the Water Department on Beatrice's water bill. There are payment plans available for up to three years. That would mean her monthly water bill would be more than $1,500 a month-- again, for water she hasn't used. Erica?

- All right, well this report obviously in the 6:00, maybe she will see it. Tara, so since she hasn't used any water, shouldn't she owe nothing-- Miss Beatrice here? Has the city acknowledged that part at all?

TARA MOLINA: Erica, since two city plumbers confirmed that there is no water to that building, you would think that-- that she'd ow nothing-- but the city still hasn't acknowledged that tonight. And most people interviewed for this series, Getting Hosed, they've been told to go on a payment plan, even in cases like this one.

- All right, Tara Molina asking questions. Thank you.