RAMONA, Calif. - The Ramona Municipal Water District is demanding ratepayers pay up or face a shut off. Team 10 found the public utility asking for tens of thousands of dollars from private business owners.
Business owners said they don't know why they got one-time water bills for tens of thousands of dollars.
Several business owners contacted San Diego’s Utility Consumers Action Network (UCAN), which provided Team 10 details on several cases. Team 10 then directly contacted other business owners.
In all, eleven different business owners said their bills were all in the five and six figure range.
The Ramona Municipal Water District noted the bills for "reconnection fees."
"You're stuck and you have to pay them," said Orrin Day, who owns the Ramona Main Stage Theater.
Day installed two new toilets in the theater and paid a $75,000 bill.
Lin Carnevale owns D'Carlos Restaurant. She said she paid the district $47,000 after she installed a single toilet.
Commercial property owner Jim Salvatore said he refused to pay a $14,000 one-time charge and never heard from the water district about it.
"They're making a profit, and they shouldn't be," Salvatore said.
Property owner Gene Plantier received a one-time bill for $130,000. He rents a property to a Mexican restaurant. The district blamed Plantier for a greasy drain in his parking lot and said it clogged the sewer system.
The district's lawyer said the one-time bill would cover the district's costs.
Team 10 found when Plantier fought the charge, the district dropped $96,000 off his bill.
"I think they're a rogue agency that's completely out of control," Plantier said.
The Ramona Water District, along with all public utilities in California, can only legally charge ratepayers for the cost of service.
Team 10 searched California for other water districts charging five- and six-figure one-time fees.
The investigation found none.
The district and General Manager David Barnam would not schedule an interview to talk about the bills or the district's rate structure.
Team 10 went to one of the district's public meetings to ask questions about the reconnection fees. Team 10 asked Barnam why some ratepayers were receiving bills for tens of thousands of dollars.
"You know without any specifics I couldn't really tell you," Barnam said.
Click here to see the district's unedited response to Team 10's questions
For weeks, Team 10 provided Barnam and the district spokesman with specific examples of five and six figure bills sent by the district. Those examples were provided both on the phone and in email, and included the cases of those who talked to Team 10 on the record for this story.
"I'm probably not the right person to answer the questions," Barnam said before the public meeting on January 22. "I'm not the most knowledgeable on the discussion."
The Ramona Municipal Water District has resisted requests to disclose its financial records. Most recently it rebuffed UCAN, the Utility Consumer Action Network.
The consumer utility watchdog group has taken an interest in Plantier's case and plans to sue the water district for release of financial records.