High water? Autumn Hill residents question $180 bill

Tara Stankovic and Scott Lester have lived in Autumn Hill apartment complex for three years and say their water and sewer bill for their two-bedroom apartment would typically run between $70 to $80.

In April, they moved to a three-bedroom apartment in the same complex and found, over the past three months, their bill at $100, $173, and most recently, $181.

"I can get no explanation on how they come up with them," says a frustrated Stankovic.

She understands that the meter in her apartment measures only hot water, and she also knows that the $201 total bill includes $10 for trash, a $5 fee for AUM, the company that bills tenants, and $5 for pest control.

What she doesn't understand is how her family of four could possibly be using $181 worth of water and sewer in a county where the average household bill, according to Lisa Breeden at Albemarle County Service Authority, is $53.31

This is not the first time there have been complaints about the billing practices at Autumn Hill, which is located on Commonwealth Drive.

"They remain a problem," says Brenda Castenada at Legal Aid Justice Center. "I still get complaints about the utilities."

Three years ago, Castenada represented Natalia and Michael Bost, who, like Stankovich and Lester, were stunned that their water bill exceeded $100.

"It's outrageous," says Natalia Bost. "I don't know how they come up with these bills."

While they didn't prevail in court, the landlord let the couple out of their lease.

"We now live in a house twice the size of our apartment," says Bost. "Our water bill is $50 a month. There, it was $100 to $150."

Jim Spahn is spokesperson for Colonial Properties, which owns Autumn Hill.

"There is no mark-up passed on to the residents," Spahn insists. "The rate is not high– it's billed at the same rate as the utility."

Spahn explains that some of the older buildings at Autumn Hill don't have individual water meters, so the complex has no way to precisely measure each apartment's total water usage. Residents in such units rely on a hot water meter, and their bill is calculated by what Spahn calls an "allocation" basis. 

For example, if unit X's hot water usage is 890 gallons, and all the units combine to consume 180,000 gallons, you divide unit X's usage by the total hot water usage of the complex to get its allocation percentage. That number is multiplied by the total water and sewer bills, and in his example, the tenant's bill comes to around $59.

Spahn suggests that the frequency and duration of showers and whether a resident runs a full dishwasher could affect the water bill. "It's all down to usage," he says.

However, tenant Stankovic says her family's water usage habits have not changed– except that her 19-year-old daughter moved out, leaving her with the expectation her bill would drop. And she still finds the bills perplexing.

For example, one month she recalls using less water, but the bill increased. She also wonders how a neighbor with four kids and a husband and who runs an on-site daycare manages to spend less than $100 on water.

According to Stankovic's October bill, her family used 1,990 gallons of hot water. She called Albemarle County Water and Sewer Authority to find out what her bill would be if she were on the public utility and says it would be about $33. Autumn Hill billed her $181.

"That 1,990 gallons is only a measurement of the hot water," reminds Colonial's Spahn.

It turns out, says Stankovic, that the Service Authority took that into consideration and doubled the 1,990 gallons of hot water to come up with its $33 estimate, an amount a reporter confirms with the Authority.

Of Autumn Hills' 425 units, "Only 11 percent of the residents had water and sewer bills in excess of $100," says Spahn, further downplaying the complaints in response to a reporter's questions.

"You have had two people contact you in five years," says Spahn.

"Autumn Hill consistently has high water bills," says Castenada at Legal Aid Justice Center, where she continues to get calls. "This seems like it's ongoing."

Castenada says that aggrieved residents can file a tenant's assertion in general district court and pay rent into an escrow account until a judge can hear the case. "A judge can order repairs, end the lease, or pay the escrow to the tenant or landlord," she says.

"The first thing to do is put complaints in writing," advises Castenada. "Calling– it kind of doesn't count according to the law."

And the law appears to be on the side of the apartment complex.

"Autumn Hill has the longest lease I've seen," says Castenada, who admits: "We haven't found a good way to challenge it."

On November 14, Stankovic got a new water bill that dropped slightly– to $166.


As with many apartments in the area, Autumn Hill probably has some crazy formula to calculate bill. The total water consumed by the complex is generally divided by the number of units. I'm sure they also figure larger apts (3BR vs 2BR) would be assumed to use more water so they are carry more of the bill. To be more complex, they may also look at average occupancy rate so that the more to capacity they are then the less overall bills will be. They would not want to charge units that are no occupied even though the complex itself has water consumption during the month but obviously they want to carry as little responsibility for that as possible.

If the tenants want to make them play fair then they can ask for an accounting for review. If they are refused then the county should be able to look at the evidence of probable fraud and if more than a couple of people are involved that should be conspiracy. If these people are being billed for more water than they are using then it is no different than the butcher putting his thumb on the scales or the gas station altering the pump. Those two are regulated by the the state and that should leave the county the right and responsibility to investigate for possible fraud on this issue since the state leaves it alone.

Barring that the tenants could always get out the building code book and look for technicalities and have the county force them to abide by every little rule. At least they will live ijn a complex without peeling paint, broken windows, loose gutters, electrical wires hanging out, etc etc

The "little guy" has more power than they think. They just need to utilize the system.

I lived there for two years (two years too many) and noticed that my water bill was always high. Well over fifty dollars every month. This being my first apartment though I didn't know enough to fight it or argue about it. I know now as I'm now in a 2 bedroom with a washer using more water but my bills are never more than fifteen dollars. Please if anyone is living there and has this problem force them to explain it and fight back. They're just bullies there and they can't keep doing what they're doing

With all the available apartments, houses and condos for rent I would move . These bills are outrageous !

I lived there last year. When it got cold outside I turned on my heat. At the end if the month my power bill was outragous. Turned out they had my thermastat wired to pump AC at the same time it was pumpin heat. Doubled my bill. Got it fixed but this was one of many problems I had while living there. There is one guy that works there that will help you (Dom), but everyone else is worthless. They raped our deposit too, despite the fact we turned the aprrment over very well.

Just wait until we see the real price of the unnecessary new reservoir and the pipeline to fill it. Everyone will have water bills like that to pay for it.

I sympathize with these folks.... Nancy Drew, once again you show your ignorance in how the real world works. You sign a lease, you cannot just pick up and move. A lease is a legally binding document...What do you do for a living that you are so clueless to how our world works?

? If I were to take a wild guess, I'd say that Nancy is either our City Manger or a City Counselor.

I'm sure Nancy meant move when the lease is up, or try to get out of it.
Every time I read the Hook to see how things are back in Charlottesville, I find a story (and comments) that make me thank God I no longer live there, in a place of rapacious landlords,violent hoodlums,and clueless public officials. Now in a place where people use all their fingers when they wave to you on the road.

Individual metering has been around for years. I looked at them in 2000 for a 32 unit apartment building so I wouldn't be responsible for the water bills.

I think that apartment life might be simpler, but then I read stuff like this. Averaging out a utility bill is very unfair, it lets the highest users get a break and the lowest users pay a penalty.

Every time I read the Hook to see how things are in Charlottesville, I find a comment from HollowBoy that makes me thank God he no longer lives here. Given such a caustic personality, it is little wonder that he often finds people waving a single finger at him on the road.

People like "Da Troof" are another reason I am glad I no longer live in Charlottesville.
Years ago I thought all those country songs about the woes of city living were goofy. Now I see they are correct.
And remember this: "A Country Boy Can Survive." (Even if I don't care for some stuff ol' Bocephus said recently, he's right about that).

If you don't have small children and aren't worried about guests being accidentally scalded, turn up the thermostat on your hot water heater. The hotter the water is the less of it you'll use for a shower or to wash dishes because it'll be mixed with cold water, the use of which only affects billing downward. Better yet, install a tempering valve downstream of the meter to bring the hot back down to a safe temp.

Dear 'Hook',
Et tu Brute'? Regarding my comment on Aqua Virginia's stranglehold on certain areas being removed from your comment section; You only served to prove my point. Now go wash the 'grease' off your palms and carry on.

I have family of 5 and was washing cloth diapers and still water bill of 50 maximum... We live in albemarle... This family is being cheated or has faulty equipment

Same issue here - two people - water bill of 120 a month, neighbors above us have the same complaint.

However when we have two kids living with us - the water bill doesn't really change - still 120 a month.

How can it be the same usage from two to four people?

"The "little guy" has more power than they think. They just need to utilize the system."

...and in order to do that they just need an unending supply of time on their hands and plenty of $$ with which to eventually retain a lawyer. If only frogs had wings, then the "little guys" would also be just fine.