Toronto

'This is ridiculous': Homeowners wonder how 'silent leak' cost them $4K on their water bill

An exorbitant water bill and a 'silent leak' leave a Toronto family stuck without options after the city says they don't qualify for relief programs. And there are thousands of people like them every year, the city said.

Toronto family dumbfounded as city says nothing can be done to help with high bill

Christine, left, and her mom, Jackie Savard. (Stephanie Matteis/CBC)

Toronto homeowners with no evidence of a water leak are on the hook for a bill that's now totalling more than $4,000.

The first thing Christine Savard thought was: "It's a mistake. By accident, they hit a couple zeroes."

The bill for Christine and her mother Jackie's home spiked from a normal amount of $444 in July 2017 to $3,132.55 in November.

Christine called the city and was told the amount wasn't an error. The city sent investigators who extensively checked the property the mother and daughter co-own. The city admitted there was no evidence of a leak.

Savard wondered how homeowners are supposed to know about — and fix — a water leak when there's no evidence of it.

'Silent leaks'

They discovered the leak was in a basement toilet that had "an overflow valve that was faulty," said Anthony Fabrizi, city of Toronto manager of billing operations.

Savard understood that "if it's stuck" the water will run. "But it can't run $3,000 worth!" she said.

The Savards' current water bill. (Stephanie Matteis/CBC)

Fabrizi said city staff often call leaks like this one "silent leaks," because "they're not necessarily evident and you don't see water spilling all over the floor but can easily increase a bill by three, four, five, even $10,000."

Incredibly, this isn't the first time this has happened to the Savard family.

In 2014, back to back bills totalled $3,952, which the Savards paid after the city said their toilets were old and needed replacing, which they did.

As for this time, Fabrizi guessed this may be a case of bad luck, that the basement toilet was faulty and the valve just stopped working last year.

Christine Savard said the city should have notified the family when the consumption changed so drastically.

"Why didn't they send us a letter saying there's a problem? Why let it escalate so high where we can't even afford to pay this?" she asked.

Over consumption

Fabrizi said the city did send a letter in October 2017 but the family said it never received it. He also said the city sends letters like that 550 times a week.

"Half are false positives," he explained. For example, cases when people are filling their swimming pools.

In this case, Fabrizi said the city offered the Savards an extended period to pay the bill, which now exceeds more than $4,000 since the March water bill came out.

Fabrizi said there are about 1,000 customers a year who face a similar issue with leaks.

"You could easily bleed away a significant amount of water without your knowing about it," he said.

No relief

The Savards, who have owned the home near Jane and Finch since 2012, looked into relief programs but don't qualify.

Ironically, the leak wasn't big enough to trigger emergency coverage.

Consumption has to increase by three or more times the daily average consumption amount for the city to offer relief, Fabrizi said.

The Savards also don't qualify on two other principles.

Christine Savard, in her early 30s, doesn't live in the home but co-owns it, so she's exempt from relief coverage. City rules consider her a landlord who might not have ensured the tenants were responding to potential problems.

The city also assesses relief based on the income of the homeowners and the tenants: if their total incomes exceed $50,000, they don't qualify for relief, Fabrizi explained.

Savard called this "hurtful." Her father died years ago and her retired mother is on a fixed income, leaving her with limited resources.

Savard works full time but said she can't cover unexpected costs like this.

"We need to survive. All our little money is our money. We're good people. We pay our bills," she said.

Fabrizi said though the city is aware the family has a history of bills in the $400-600 range, "in this case there's nothing that can be done because, the litmus test on those three relief programs, they don't qualify."

Concerned how to pay the bill, Savard said: "This is ridiculous. It's unfair. They need to do something. This is ridiculous they can't keep doing this to innocent people."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephanie Matteis is a senior reporter with CBC News, filing stories for television, radio & online. She's a pathological truthteller and storytelling junkie whose work appears on CBC Toronto, The National and Marketplace. Contact Stephanie: stephanie.matteis@cbc.ca and @CBCsteph on Twitter.

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