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Los Angeles Daily News

Friday March 09, 2012

DWP Charged Some Apartment Residents For City Trash Service They Never Received

By Melissa Pamer, Staff Writer
The city of Los Angeles has been charging some apartment residents for trash-collecting services they didn't receive.


Information on overcharges for city trash fees is at or by calling 800-773-2489.

The city is still determining refunds, but DWP customers who lived in an apartment between Oct. 28, 2007, and Feb. 27, 2012, and think they might have been overcharged should file a claim anyway.

Even if you can't find old bills with overcharges on them, the plaintiffs' attorneys recommend providing as much information as possible on claim forms, such as your DWP account number(s) and applicable street addresses. The city is required to research your account if you file a claim.

DWP customers who were overcharged will get their refunds as credits to future bills. Former customers will get checks.


Apartment dwellers, inspect your DWP bills carefully. You might be getting charged for city trash service you don't receive.

A class-action lawsuit recently settled by the city of Los Angeles shows that some residents of multifamily buildings have been overcharged trash fees for years.

In some cases, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was billing customers $24 or $36 per month for municipal trash pickup even when tenants' apartment complexes used private waste haulers, not city sanitation services.

The City Council in December approved a settlement that could refund as much as $6 million to more than 8,400 affected customers. Residents overcharged for the entire four years and four months - the time period covered by the settlement - could be owed more than $1,200.

"The city had a very bad billing system that it wasn't keeping up to date and as a result there were many, many, many errors made," said attorney Timothy Blood, who represented tenants in the lawsuit. "Unfortunately, when they made errors, they tended to charge people."

Notices about the settlement went out to many DWP customers in recent weeks. Customers can submit claim forms to ensure they get paid for overcharges from October 2007 through last month.

Meanwhile, city officials say many have already been reimbursed. And work is being done now to fix the problem, which had to do with two separate systems used by DWP, which issues bills with city trash fees, and the Bureau of Sanitation, which actually provides the waste service.

"Our systems are incompatible with each other. That's just the bottom line," said Cora Jackson-Fossett, a spokeswoman for the sanitation bureau.

"It's not our desire to overcharge anybody," she added. "We're working to resolve concerns."

Deputy City Attorney John Carvalho, one of two lawyers who defended the city in the lawsuit, said that DWP field workers had incorrectly inputted codes for sanitation services while at customers' homes. So some apartments were labeled single-family homes, meaning tenants were charged $36.22 per month for trash service, instead of the $24.33 monthly multifamily rate.

Other apartment-dwellers were inputted as Bureau of Sanitation customers - and charged either the multifamily or higher single-family rate - even though the city didn't pick up their trash at all.

The Bureau of Sanitation provides trash pickup to all single-family homes and apartment buildings with four or fewer units in Los Angeles. Some larger complexes are also served by the city, but most use private waste haulers.

DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo said the utility acts as "solely a billing agent" that collects and delivers trash fees for the Bureau of Sanitation.

"The Department of Public Works Bureau of Sanitation is the responsible party for matters related to its Solid Resource Fee, including charging and refunding. ... LADWP has no discretion over setting the amount of trash fees or determining refunds," Ramallo said in a written statement.

Blood blames both agencies.

"They say it's each other's fault, but I would say it's both of their faults," Blood said. "They were sending out the bills without worrying if the information is accurate."

News of the overcharges was met with frustration from organizations representing both renters and apartment owners.

"Tenants have a hard enough time paying the rent, let alone having to pay charges that they're not responsible for," said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a tenants' rights group.

Gross praised the settlement as a victory for renters.

Jim Clarke, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, said the situation added to his members' aggravation with city trash service. Many apartment owners would prefer to use private haulers, which Clarke said can be cheaper.

"There's a huge mix-up. How will they figure this out? It's got to be done building by building," Clarke said. "It's a huge mess."

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 after Hollywood resident Lilith Chakhalyan noticed that she and other elderly tenants in her building were being charged for trash service, even though their complex was privately serviced.

"One of the giveaways was that the city had told her that their system is outdated and they didn't know for sure" how many customers were affected, said Hovanes Margarian, a Sherman Oaks attorney who worked on the case. "I got the feeling there might be a lot more people out there."

The city has thus far determined that about 8,400 of 750,000 trash-service customers were mischarged, Carvalho said.

In court, the city sought to use a municipal statute that would have limited the amount of refunds to just one year of overcharges per affected customer, attorneys for both sides said.

In settlement talks, the sides agreed to cover more than four years' worth of overcharges, though the problem may have been going on for much longer.

In 2000, the city settled a much smaller lawsuit for similarly overcharging for trash fees, Blood said. Unlike that agreement, the current settlement mandates improvements to city databases, among other changes to try to end billing discrepancies. DWP and the Bureau of Sanitation are also required to hold regular meetings to jointly resolve billing problems.

"There are a lot of corrective measures that the city is going to engage to make sure the problem is limited down to, hopefully, nobody," Carvalho said. "Hopefully, if you've had a bill for anything, hopefully you check it. Mistakes are made. Humans are not infallible."

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