IMAGE: and illustration by tyson smith
It's 9 am on a gorgeous spring day, with a smudge of cirrus in the sky and a hint of rhododendron in the breeze, and City Water Inspector Darrell Hobson is cruising through the back streets of North Portland in a white Ford pickup, muttering under his breath.
Water inspectors like Hobson spend most of their time helping customers track down leaks in their plumbing. A 50-year-old ex-Navy technician with a stout build and a laconic demeanor, Hobson likes his work; he's been with the city's water bureau for 25 years. But for one hour each weekday, Hobson and the other inspectors shoulder the unpleasant duty of shutting off the water to people's homes.
"This is the least favorite part of my job," he says. "You're never dealing with people at their best."
On this particular morning, Hobson has a dozen shut-offs on his clipboard. First on the list is a mint-green bungalow defended by a couple of anemic rosebushes on a sleepy section of North Commercial Avenue. The window blinds are drawn, and a beat-up white Monte Carlo sits outside, a spiderweb network of cracks radiating from a hole in the windshield.
Hobson leaps out of the truck, reaches into the bed for the tools of his trade--a mutant crowbar called a "meter bar" and an elongated tire iron called a "curbstop key"--and warily steps up to the meter, which sits outside the house, hidden by a rusty iron plate in the narrow strip of no man's land between the curb and the sidewalk.
But as soon as he slips the bar through the ring of the plate, an eye peeks through the window blinds. Now the front door opens and a woman appears on the porch in her pajamas.
"What are you doing?" she shouts.
Hobson looks up from his work, sets down his tools and steps up to the porch.
"I'm with the Water Bureau," he says. "And the credit desk has ordered me to shut off the water because the bill's in arrears."
"Well--ask the landlord! He's the one who's supposed to pay the water. He's supposed to pay!"
"I understand that, but the policy is to shut off the water at the property unless there's some arrangement to pay the bill."
The woman confers with an unseen person in the house. "Ask the landlord," she repeats. "We don't pay the water."
Finally, Hobson floats a suggestion: If she promises to call the landlord and get him to contact the bureau, Hobson will not disconnect the water.
She considers this for a moment, and then mumbles agreement. Hobson makes sure he's got a deal.
"If I leave the water on today, will you get it taken care of?" he asks.
"Yeah," she replies.
"OK," Hobson sighs, picking up his tools and heading back to the truck.
"Thank you!" she calls out after him.
"Tenant-landlord situations are very difficult for us," he explains as he drives to the next shut-off. "We can leave them on so long as they promise to make arrangements. It's not supposed to be a punishment. It's only to get you to pay your bill."
Disconnecting the water may seem like the most pedestrian of municipal functions, but in fact it is a bizarre confluence of bureaucracy, social work, politics and hard times, washed down with a generous shot of procrastination. It is seldom pleasant: Hobson has been cursed at, savaged by a German shepherd and menaced with a knife; one angry customer threatened to kill him if he shut off the water (Hobson relented).
Shut-offs have become even more problematic with the introduction of a new $7 million computer system at the Portland Water Bureau. Due to numerous programming bugs, roughly 8-10 percent of the bureau's customers are still not receiving regular bills. As a result, the bureau did no shut-offs from January 2000 until March of this year.
The vast majority of the bureau's 176,000 customers pay their bills on time. But on any given day, roughly 2 percent are in arrears. If you fall behind on your bills, the bureau first sends out a reminder, followed by an urgent notice. Then it makes at least one telephone call. If there is no reply to any of its increasingly alarming messages, it schedules a shut-off (see "Countdown to Oblivion," page 17).
The bureau is acutely aware that losing your water is a wrenching experience. "Disconnecting someone's water service is different than shutting off their phone," says Caroline Carroll, the Water Bureau's service center supervisor. "It's a very serious matter. Our goal is to prevent disconnection if we can."
The bureau will never disconnect certain types of customers: apartment buildings, hospitals or clinics. It will not disconnect individuals on home kidney dialysis. It will not disconnect anyone on weekends or for two weeks during the holiday season.
In addition, customers can avert shut-off at any stage of the process simply by contacting the bureau. "If they need another couple weeks, that's fine," Carroll says. "If they need another month, that's fine." The bureau offers subsidies for low-income customers; other social-service agencies can also provide assistance with the water bill.
But for those unfortunate souls who do not qualify for exemption, and who spurn all efforts at contact, the bureau dispatches a water inspector to leave the one calling card that cannot be ignored: the hissing faucet.
Pulling up along a busy stretch of North Killingsworth Street, Hobson glances out the window and shakes his head in disbelief.
The next shut-off is none other than the Christ Memorial Church, a well-kept affair of stucco and glass brick with green trim and an empty parking lot. Hobson double-checks his paperwork, sighs, then hops out of the truck and raps on the church's door. No answer.
"Well," he shrugs. "We've got to shut off God. I hope He'll forgive me somehow."
Wielding his meter bar and curbstop key like a Brobdingnagian pair of chopsticks, Hobson marches up to the meter and hooks the iron plate aside. With a deft swoop of his foot, he wipes the dirt from the meter's face to check its number against the shut-off notice. Then he slides the key onto the curb stop, slips the meter bar through the eye of the key, and turns it like a perverse corkscrew.
In less than an hour, Hobson visits a shuttered hairstyling academy, a vacant butchery, an auto detailing shop, a religious office, and a bank--the Wells Fargo branch on North Denver Avenue, where a flustered clerk explains that the branch's bills are paid by another office. Nodding patiently, Hobson waits until the clerk promises that someone will call the bureau today.
"That's not the first bank by any means," he says. "You name it, I've been there! Banks, strip clubs, churches. Wherever it is, I won't leave until someone says, 'I'll take care of it.'"
As a matter of policy, water inspectors treat commercial customers differently than residential ones. With a business, Hobson talks to an employee, who usually promises to take care of the bill at once. But with residential customers, Hobson just shuts the water off--unless the householder spots him.
"I'm always personally glad to make contact with the customer," he says. "I make no effort to avoid that. For me it's better, because it gets the same results without them having to go through the trauma of being shut off."
In fact, Hobson is anything but judgmental about water deadbeats: 15 years ago, during a chaotic period when his wife was hospitalized, he came home after a hard day's work at the bureau to find that his own water was shut off. He had forgotten to pay the bill.
COUNTDOWN TO OBLIVION
1 Customer receives Water Bill. If customer does not respond within 30 days...
2 Bureau mails out a Reminder Notice. If customer does not respond within seven days...
3 Bureau makes at least one telephone call warning customer of impending doom. If customer does not respond...
4 Bureau mails out a Pre-Shut-Off Notice. If customer does not respond within 10 days...
5 Bureau dispatches inspector to disconnect service by turning the meter off. Customer can forestall shut-off by promising to contact bureau that day.
6 The vast majority of shut-offs never proceed beyond this point. Nonetheless, a tiny fraction of customers turn the meter back on after shut-off.
7 Bureau dispatches inspector to padlock the meter shut.
8 Customer breaks padlock with bolt-cutters.
9 Bureau removes meter, physically disconnecting property from main line.
10 Customer installs jerry-built "spacer" (typically constructed out of radiator hose) to reconnect property to main line.
11 Bureau sends work crew to crimp the main line leading to the property, permanently shutting off flow of water and choking out life as we know it.
Find out more than you ever wanted to know about Portland's water distribution system at www.water.ci.portland.or.us/distribution.htm .
If you're having trouble paying your water bill, call the city's Water and Sewer Credit Department at 823-7770 or check out www.water.ci.portland.or.us/financial.htm