Imagine opening your mail and finding more than $11,300 in city of Sacramento water charges, most of it past due.
That's what happened to Richard Cleverley, president of the Sierra Oaks West Homeowners Association.
Last June, Cleverley discovered the city had been charging for metered irrigation for the association's 48 homes for more than two years.
But because the city apparently had the wrong mailing address, the first two years' worth of bills never arrived in the mailbox. The snail mail, instead, bounced back to the city, which in October 2010 filed a lien on the property.
Today, the irrigation charges have grown to $16,000 and counting, and that's on top of the flat-rate water service the homeowners already pay.
For Cleverley, there's a sense of having been ambushed by a huge bill dating from May 2009.
Cleverley also questions whether the bill is appropriate. He had complained about the irrigation charges in 1992, calling them "double payments," because a portion of the homeowners' flat-rate bills already went for irrigation.
The city agreed a month later, dropping the irrigation accounts from its billing system and granting a refund.
Cleverley says another issue ought to weigh in his favor, too. The 6-acre Sierra Oaks West area is zoned single-family residential. And single-family homes are not subject to separate irrigation charges.
City officials are not persuaded. Zoning doesn't matter, they said. The reality is the plumbing for the common areas is not linked to individual units.
The association gets the bills. It's up to the association to decide each owner's share.
For the city, the episode is a validation of its account audits. The city issues about 130,000 bills and the audits have detected about 400 problems with accounts each year.
In the last fiscal year, the city recovered $490,000, thanks to audits.
This bill, said interim Utility Director Dave Brent, just took a little longer to find by audit and it took longer to deliver to the association.
Much of that process these days is automated, thanks to the glut of foreclosures and property transfers that are recorded before utility bills are changed.
"We have thousands of delinquent bills, and I can see where maybe it got caught up" in the automated processing, Brent said.
Still, he said the city waived about $3,400 in late charges.
City officials say they may have had the latitude to drop an irrigation account from billing system in 1992. But not today. Rather, the city has an obligation to charge for the cost of providing the service and not to shift those costs elsewhere.
Michael G. Colantuono, an expert on municipal fees for service and a consultant to the city of Sacramento, said the real issue is how a city bills for its service.
"It's an accounting question," he said.
And by law, once a billing oversight is found, the city can bill retroactively.
On the other hand, should the property owners have to pay for service where bills were never delivered before mid-2011?
"Many people think it's unfair to look back at all if you didn't bill (for the service)," Colantuono said.
"At a common-sense level, that's a very appealing argument."