Bamboozled: A puzzling flood of utility bills

BB brandingMary Lou Lucido pays her bills.

She pays rent each month to Avalon Watchung in North Plainfield for her one-bedroom apartment.

She pays PSE&G for gas and electricity each month, and she’s happy to pay for the services she uses.

What she’s not willing to do is pay for services caused by broken equipment that’s not accessible to her, maintained by her or owned by her.

Therein lies the problem.

Prior to February, Lucido, 57, never had an issue with her gas or electric bill.

“The bill was generally monthly in the mid-$200 range in the winter, and $150 on the low end,” she said, noting that February’s bill was $227. “In March of this year it jumped up to an absurd and ridiculous amount. It’s a one-bedroom apartment. Clearly, there is no way it could have been this ludicrous amount.”

March’s bill was $435.

Lucido called PSE&G. The rep said the meter was probably misread, and the next month’s bill would reflect the accurate charges. She said she also called the apartment complex’s management company to notify them of the unusually high bill, and they said something about checking the meter, which is located in a public area.

71513Lucido paid $250 that month, estimating on the high side what she thought her actual usage was, and she waited.

When April’s bill came, the problem continued. New charges were added to the unpaid balance from the month before, and the bill said she owed $586. She said she notified the apartment complex, and then she called PSE&G.

“The representative that was helping us from PSE&G finally suggested to us in his expert opinion that PSE&G would take the meter out and test it, and for us to continue paying around the amount we would normally pay,” Lucido said.

So for April, she paid another $250.

Around the same time, Lucido said a maintenance man came to turn on the air conditioning. This was located in a locked closet on the apartment’s second-floor balcony. (More on why this is important in a few moments.)

The May bill jumped again. It was now at $720. Lucido paid $220, and hoped for the best.

She said she checked in with PSE&G to ask about the meter testing, but received no answers about when it would happen.

Finally, in the beginning of May, PSE&G came to remove, test and replace the meter. It was found to be accurate.

But then the June bill arrived with a whopping balance of $1,014.

For Lucido, that was the last straw. She wanted a resolution.

She called PSE&G again, and they said they sent a letter explaining that the meter was okay — something Lucido said she never received. Eventually, she was transferred to a supervisor she said was the most helpful rep to date.

“He was the first representative who suggested that there might be an internal or structural issue in the building,” she said. “He asked many troubleshooting questions and one finally struck a chord: Do you hear a leak or water running in any room in the apartment?”

Lucido enlisted the help of her boyfriend, Tom Docherty. They listened around, and they heard something. It was a subtle sound of water running behind the tub in the bathroom.

Progress, at last.

Lucido called the apartment complex about the sound, and on June 17, the maintenance guy arrived.

“It turns out it was a broken valve in the water heater that was continually running warm water through a pipe that ran through the bathroom then out to a sewage pipe,” she said.

The water heater is located in that locked closet on the second-floor balcony — out of Lucido’s reach.

After the fix was made, Lucido brought copies of the bills to the apartment complex manager.

“The property manager advised us that they are not responsible for any of these bills. It’s not their problem because I denied them access to the apartment? Help!”


We reviewed the bills and the timeline of calls made by Lucido.

She also explained the manager’s comment about access to the apartment.

“I just don’t allow maintenance in the apartment when I’m not present,” she said. “I have a small dog and I’m afraid he will run out the door.”

She said she has no problem with them coming. She simply wants to be home when they do.

We left a message for the apartment complex, and while we waited for a call back, we talked to PSE&G.

It offered to put the account on hold for 30 days so Lucido wouldn’t have to worry about collections calls or shut-off notices while we tried to resolve the jumbo charges.

We also called the Department of Community Affairs, which handles the state’s Landlord-Tenant Information Service.

A spokesman pointed us to the regulations for the Maintenance of Hotels and Multiple Dwellings.

Under Maintenance Requirements, N.J.A.C. 5:10-1.6(b) reads: “All service equipment, means of egress, devices, and safeguards that are required in a building by the provisions of these regulations, or that were required by the law when the building was erected, altered, or repaired, shall be maintained in good working order.”

The complex, then, is responsible for to make sure the water heater — in that locked closet — is “in good working order.”

In days, the complex called us back, saying it was reviewing Lucido’s maintenance requests.

The next day, Lucido got a call. Actually, three calls, all from the complex. All said it was urgent she call back. One message was more detailed, saying the complex wanted to give her a $1,500 credit on her Avalon account to make up for the extra gas charges.

Before Lucido was able to call back, we received a call from Richard Wolff, who said he did communications for Avalon’s properties.

He said the complex’s maintenance records showed Lucido didn’t contact them until May, when she complained about a high gas bill. That’s different from Lucido’s accounting of calling the management in March and in April.

Lucindo’s next contact was June, he said, when she asked for compensation for the extra charges from the water heater leak. At that time, he said, the complex manager had a conversation with Lucido about what her responsibilities were, compared with those of the complex, given that they said Lucido denied them access.

Lucido disputes the complex’s account of dates and events, but that’s not the real issue here. The real issue is who should pay.

Wolff said the complex manager has been trying to reach Lucido for several days, but Lucido hasn’t returned the calls.

Bamboozled explained Lucido’s job doesn’t allow for chat time during working hours, but she did receive three messages, including the one offering a $1,500 credit toward future rent.

Wolff said that’s not the offer he was aware of, but he said the company “wants to resolve the situation in an amicable way.”

“The manager spoke to the regional management and they are trying to let her know that they are amenable to paying the lion’s share of the utility bill,” he said. “They’re just asking her to pay the amount she would normally pay.”


We reached out to Lucido and did the math with her. Given that there’s no way to know for sure exactly what her usage was for the months in question, we used her 2012 bills as an estimate. Adding in the overpayments for what she’s already paid to PSE&G for those months, we came to $1,603, not including three weeks of usage in June from before the fix was made.

It’s as close to making Lucido whole as we could get.

Lucido took the number to the manager, and they negotiated.

“I said I would be happy with $1,700, and she said, ‘Done,’€…” Lucido said.

The $1,700 would go toward a credit on her Avalon account for future rent payments. Essentially, Lucido would take the money she’d usually pay for rent, and she’d pay off the extra PSE&G balance with it — in the end, breaking just about even.

“The way it all worked out, I’m happy and excited,” Lucido said. “It’s the closest I ever hoped to get. I was getting frustrated and I thought it would have been small claims court next.”

Avalon made good on its promise. On Thursday, Lucido received the $1,700 credit promise from Avalon in writing. She plays to apply it to her August rent.

Case closed.