For years, Chicago leaders like Rahm Emanuel used the city’s water supply as a revenue stream. Now, There are more than 220,000 delinquent accounts, collectively owing more than $421 million.

By María Inés Zamudio, WBEZ Chicago

A billing error turned Sylvia Taylor’s life upside down.

The bureaucratic nightmare started when Taylor inherited her family’s Englewood house. Taylor needed time to figure out whether her daughter would move in or if she’d rent it out. Taylor turned off the water in 2007 to avoid the pipes from bursting during the winter.

She went back to her life in Bronzeville and didn’t think about the water again until the city sent her a notice more than a year later, alerting her that the water would be shut off. Attached was a bill for $1,100.

Taylor was shocked.

hands reaching up trying no to drown in debt, and bills

Taylor said that she spoke with the city’s water department and finance departments in hopes that they would clear the error. She was advised to register the two-flat house with the city as a vacant property — which comes with an initial fee up to $600 plus an additional $300 to renew every six months. Upset about the ordeal, Taylor refused to pay the fee. Years of fighting with the city went by.

Meanwhile, the city continued to charge Taylor for water she wasn’t using — and fined her for a debt she didn’t really owe. And the city couldn’t provide an accounting of the water usage at the vacant, unmetered property — those properties are charged not for the actual amount of water used but for an estimated amount of water usage based on a property’s size and its number of plumbing fixtures.

In 2015, Taylor requested the water department send an inspector to verify that the building was vacant. A water department employee wrote in the report “entire building vacant, water shutoff since 2007.” However, the report went unnoticed for years.

Nearly 13 years after she turned off the water to her family home, the debt had ballooned to $25,253.

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