'Institutional madness': Winnipeg woman's water turned off over unpaid bill at ex-husband's residence
City insisted Marilyn Simon pay bill at residence where she never lived, but wouldn't provide account number
A Winnipeg woman is "bewildered" after the city turned the water off at her River Heights home because of an unpaid bill at another residence — one at which she's never lived.
"My name is not on the bill, I've never lived at that other house, I don't even know the address of the other house," said Marilyn Simon.
Simon had just returned from a doctor's appointment with her two children Thursday morning when she discovered the water wasn't working.
"I checked my mail slot and [a notice] said it had been turned off because of non-bill payment," she said.
Simon says she contacted the city and was finally connected with someone at the water and waste department.
"He said, 'Well, the reason your water is turned off is because of an outstanding bill at a different address, at a different property,' and I was completely bewildered at this point because I don't have another property," she said.
After inquiring further, Simon found out it was an outstanding bill for a property her ex-husband had rented, but no longer lived at. Simon and her husband are separated and he hasn't lived at the River Heights home for three years, but his name is still on the title.
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Simon asked why she wasn't notified earlier that her water would be turned off because of the unpaid bill. She says she was told that the city did its due diligence in trying to contact the person with the outstanding bill.
"They said that they had done their due diligence, they were very good at repeating that," she said.
At this point I was absolutely bewildered by the institutional madness that I was encountering.- Marilyn Simon
Simon told the person on the phone she didn't recall getting any letter, but if a letter did come and was addressed to her husband, she would have probably just passed it along to him.
"If mail isn't addressed to me, I can't legally open it. You're not allowed to open mail that isn't yours," she said.
Simon said she asked what she needed to do to get her water turned back on and was told she'd need to pay the bill in full, plus a $107 re-hookup fee.
"I said 'Well, OK, what is owing?' And he said 'I cannot tell you that because the bill isn't in your name,'" said Simon.
The City of Winnipeg said it cannot discuss specific account details due to privacy regulations regarding customer accounts.
"In cases of disconnection, the property owner will receive at least three notices. In addition, the City attempts to call customers to advise them of the possibility of disconnection," a city spokesperson said in an email.
"The City may turn off water to a property if an owner of the property has unpaid debts from another address. This type of disconnection makes up a very low percentage of the City's overall utility disconnections," the spokesperson said.
'I broke down in tears'
Simon says she was eventually told the outstanding amount was $644, plus the $107 fee to turn it back on.
"It was $751 and I sort of gasped. I don't have that much money," she said.
Simon said throughout the course of the day Thursday, she arranged to borrow the money from family but still didn't know how to pay the bill.
"Here I am, I have two kids and we need to be able to flush toilets and wash hands and cook," said Simon.
When she inquired with the city about how to pay, they told her she could go to a post office and send a money order, but again, couldn't give her the account number or the address the bill was connected with because of privacy restrictions.
Simon decided to go down to City Hall and sort the matter out in person. She told them she was trying to pay the bill to get her water turned on and was once again told that because she didn't know the account number or the address, they couldn't take her money.
"I [was] running into the same institutional logic," she said.
She says she was instructed to call someone at water and waste.
"And I'm just, at this point, sobbing in the main hallway of City Hall. I broke down in tears," she said.
Held 'hostage' over outstanding bill
Simon was eventually allowed to pay the bill and had her water turned on just before midnight Thursday. She says the whole ordeal has left her frustrated.
"All of [the city staff] repeated basically the same script, that is, 'Well, we understand this is very frustrating for you, but we have done our due diligence of sending out notifications, we are operating within the guidelines of the city bylaws," she said.
"It was worse than talking to an automated computer system at that point, because these are real human beings that should on some level know that this is wrong, what they've done to a family of three," said Simon.
She doesn't accept the city's "due diligence" defence.
"Look, you guys didn't do your due diligence here. I am the resident of this property, I do pay my water bill at this property, and you guys shut off my water without any notification to me," said Simon.
She's also upset the city wouldn't allow her any time to gather the money and wouldn't let her pay a portion upfront and the rest later.
"How can you hold a person hostage this way for $751?" she said.
"How was I supposed to live without water? Imagine what a toilet looks like after five days if it hasn't been flushed with a family of three living there."
The single mother of two says she spent everything she had, on top of borrowing money she needs to pay back in order to settle the bill.
"I paid the money. Now how am I supposed to feed my kids until my next paycheque comes in next week?"
Simon said she contacted her city councillor, John Orlikow, but hasn't heard back from him yet.
Orlikow told CBC he would look into her file and see what happened.