When Chanel Rysell and Matt Stolz pay the water bill at the Strawberry Patch Apartments in Bellevue, they're shelling out for theirneighbors too.

It's gone past the point of being frustrating to just comical, Matt said. Silly almost.

It's a growing trend, and many think it's all wet.

Owners are using third-party billing systems to handle utility payments. It allows managers to split the residents' costs however they wish. In other words, those who conserve may pay for a water hog's usage.

When you're making an active effort to conserve and lower your usage and the bill just continues to get higher indiscriminately,it's frustrating, Matt said.

In Mattand Chanel's case, their $174 should be about $100. That's if they were paying the city for the water and not the third party billing company.

Virginia Barrett with Bellevue Utilities agrees that both Matt and Chanel seem like they are paying a lot more for water than they should. Some people are paying more for their fair share, some are paying less.

Here's how it works. The City of Bellevue provides water to the apartment building and bills the owner. The third-party billing company splits that bill to the owner's specifications and sends notices to the residents, who then pay the third-party billing company.

It's the split that causes grief for many apartment residents. Seventy percent of Matt and Chanel's bill is a split of everyone else's water use.

I want to pay for what I can see, Chanel said. No one can show me how much water I'm using and no one can explain how I'm being charged.

SoI had Virginia look at the bills. She tells me the Strawberry Patch Apartments are made up offour buildings with four units in each. She says two of the buildings have water use well above the city average, and the other two are normal. The problem, the city can do nothing about the situation.

It's a red flag, particularly for us, because the tenants are the ones complaining. We don't have any control over that.

That's right. Neither the city nor the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission have any regulatory control over these companies. Minol, the third-party business in this case says it called the owner of Strawberry Patch and suggested that she change their billing, but the owner - Michelle Lee - decided not to.

Icalled, then stopped by her home, and she didn't answer and didn't have much to say on the phone either.

Bottom line. There's nothing illegal here, but it's definitely a consumer concern.

Jesse Jones: Would you sign up with somebody who had third-party billing?

Virginia Barrett: That would give me pause, no, I don't think I would.

Here's what you need to know: Before you sign any lease, make sure you look at your contract. Always ask if the rent includes water, sewer and garbage. If they have a third-party biller, ask how the water bills are split. If they don't tell you, ask someone who's living there. They'll know.

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