South Florida

Opa-lockans were grossly overbilled for water. A court ruling may help them soak the city

Plundering a small town

How corruption and mismanagement pushed Opa-locka to the edge of insolvency.
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How corruption and mismanagement pushed Opa-locka to the edge of insolvency.

Still struggling to make ends meet, one of Miami-Dade County’s poorest cities could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars now that Opa-locka water customers have been certified as a class to recover damages for legal claims over excessive bills and misspent deposits.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko recently certified the class of about 30,000 current and former water users who sued Opa-locka’s government for damages, after several homeowners testified about monthly bills exceeding $1,000 based on estimates — not actual meter readings.

Butchko said earlier this month that she based her decision on testimony by the city’s water customers and its former finance director, Charmaine Parchment, along with a scathing engineering report on the local utility’s extensive flaws.

Parchment testified that her department sometimes spent “the whole day dealing with complaints,” because the water-billing problems were “across the board.”

Opa-locka’s attorney in the water case, Detra Shaw-Wilder, said she will file a “direct appeal” of the judge’s decision on class certification. If that is denied, the two sides will try to resolve the case through mediation or head to trial in the fall.

Former Opa-locka Assistant City Manager Jordan Leonard at the old Opa-locka City Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016. Leonard is a key whistle-blower in the city’s water corruption case. PATRICK FARRELL Miami Herald Staff

“According to residents, they’re still being billed for water to the tune of thousands and thousands of dollars every month,” said attorney Michael Pizzi, who is representing the Opa-locka class with lawyers Ben Kuehne and David Reiner. “The only way they’re going to see justice is through an enforcement order by the court.”

Two years ago, a group of Opa-locka’s homeowners grew so outraged that they filed the class-action case, accusing the city of operating a failed utility service that was issuing wildly inaccurate bills. The group demanded millions of dollars in refunds on their water bills and customer deposits. Pizzi estimates that damages could cost the city at least $30 million, dating back to 2012.

Homeowners brought their case after the Miami Herald uncovered that Opa-locka officials not only gave preferential treatment to some water users — including former Mayor Myra Taylor’s Vankara School — but also raided $1.7 million in customer deposits in 2014 to balance the city’s deficit-ridden budget. The individual deposits ranged from $170 for homeowners to thousands of dollars for business owners.

On top of the deposit scandal, numerous Opa-locka water customers railed against irregular and inflated bills, blaming inaccuracies on leaky pipes, flawed meters and corrupt management. A former public works supervisor pleaded guilty to shutting off customers’ water and shaking them down to turn it back — one of seven extortion cases made by the FBI and federal prosecutors at Opa-locka City Hall.

Opa-locka’s incompetence in operating the city’s utility service became so acute that officials were forced to let Miami-Dade County, which supplies the water, oversee billing and collections. The city had no choice after Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of financial emergency in Opa-locka in 2016 and placed its government under the supervision of a state oversight board.

The following year, a consultant retained by Opa-locka to survey the city’s 5,800 water meters found that only half could be read at all and just one-third with any accuracy. And that assessment excluded about 900 meters that could not be accessed or located, because of overgrown landscaping and other reasons.

Opa-locka homeowners George and Tania Suarez said they repeatedly complained at City Hall about wildly fluctuating water bills. Jay Weaver The Miami Herald

“Almost 70 percent of the water meters were not accurate,” Judge Butchko said at an April 10 hearing when she certified the Opa-locka class. “The city had to estimate the bills since 2006.”

Most of the city’s automatic meters didn’t work — either because they were completely broken or failed to transmit reliable electronic data on water usage, according to a report by the Avanti Company, which consulted Opa-locka’s government on its utility system. That failure forced the city to provide questionable estimates of some customers’ water consumption, while manually reading meters for others, leading to erratic and exorbitant bills for thousands of residents and businesses.

George Suarez and his wife, Tania, who bought a home for their family in Opa-locka in 2015, said they complained more than 15 times at City Hall about their monthly water bills fluctuating between $50 and $1,200 — but got no satisfaction, according to their testimony before Judge Butchko. City officials kept saying the couple must have leaky pipes, so the Suarezes hired a plumber, who found no leaks.

“The bill was not withdrawn by the city,” Butchko noted. “They did receive threats that their water would be turned off.”

After talking with other residents about similar problems, Suarez, a chef, agreed to serve as the class representative in the water lawsuit.

Jay Weaver writes about bad guys who specialize in con jobs, rip-offs and squirreling away millions. Since joining the Miami Herald in 1999, he’s covered the federal courts nonstop, from Elian’s custody battle to A-Rod’s steroid abuse. He was on the Herald team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 2001. He and three Herald colleagues were Pulitzer Prize finalists for explanatory reporting in 2019 for a series on gold smuggled from South America to Miami.