California man overpays utility bill for more than 2 decades

PETALUMA, Calif. -- If you've paid a bill you shouldn't have, you should be reimbursed, right? What if you paid that bill for more than two decades? Should you be reimbursed all that money?

A Petaluma family found an error that has gone on for 22 years. Kenneth Fok's sister invited him to move 22 years ago to her 1-acre lot, where there are two homes on one property.

Fok lived rent-free in the rear while she lived in the home in the front. The two made this arrangement so they could take care of their mother.

He agreed to pay the water bill and she would pay some of the other utilities. Fok happily showed his sister their December water bill because it was significantly cheaper than usual.

It was then she noticed the water bill also included sewer charges. That upset her because for 22 years, she had been paying a sewer-only bill.

"The city is improperly charging my sister for sewer usage. I am already paying for water and sewer for the property," said Fok.

He flushed the toilet. That's where Fok feels the money he's paid for his water bill has been going -- flushed down the toilet.

No one knows for sure how this double payment of the sewer charge happened, but the city speculates the mistake occurred before the family even purchased the property.

The previous owners at one time received their water from a private underground water well and not from the city. Thus the occupants paid only for sewer charges.

When those owners switched to city water, they began receiving from the city utility a combination water/sewer bill. At that point, the sewer only bill should have stopped, but that didn't happen.

Fok said a city inspector told him to expect a refund. But for how much? City records go back 14 years and during that time he paid about $11,000 in sewer charges.

"Since the city is charging for services we didn't actually use, which is the sewer only charge, that we should be reimbursed for the 22 years," said Fok.

The city thought otherwise. It offered to reimburse the family charges from just three of the 22 years, citing caps on the amount of time you can let elapse before disputing a bill.

"They should make the customer whole. We've paid for a service that was not provided," said a frustrated Fok.

He contacted KGO-TV's 7 On Your Side for help. They contacted the city.

City attorney Eric Danly told 7 On Your Side and Fok, "The law presumes a certain amount of due diligence and oversight on the part of rate payers regarding their payments to the government."

He agreed to increase the amount of the refund to four years. The expected refund is approximately $4,000 dollars.

Fok accepted the offer on the advice of an attorney. Fok's attorney told him there is a limit to how long you can wait to contest charges, but says it's unclear how long a consumer has to do that.

Written and produced by Randall Yip
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