TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A growing number of homeowners in the Holiday neighborhood of Forest Hills say they’re getting concerning letters in the mail demanding they pay years of utility service.
It’s a service they say they didn’t know they had, and if they don’t pay, the letters say, liens could be placed on their homes.
“My first thought was, “this is a scam,” said Brandi Houghtlen. “A hand-written envelope, a company you’ve never heard of. “They couldn’t even provide me with copies of any statements that they’ve ever sent me.”
Houghtlen’s is not alone. Other Forest Hills residents are complaining of these out-of-the-blue bills, too. The BBB gives Forest Hills an F rating for not responding to complaints.
Doris Gentzler tells turned to Better Call Behnken, saying her trash is picked up, but she hasn’t received a bill in 19 years so she assumed trash service was included in county taxes.
“I had never heard of this company,” she said. “Waste Connections picks up the trash, and I have never received a bill.”
Gentzler said she called the company for answers.
“I said, ‘even if I owe this bill, I need some kind of record that I owe this bill, and she said okay, but I haven’t heard back yet.”
Investigator Shannon Behnken reached out to Forest Hills Utilities, Inc. and was told by Tammy Gardner, accounts receivable, that the company bills quarterly and that every homeowner receives these bills. The ones complaining, she said, must have ignored bills.
Gardner explained that during the pandemic, the company held off on late notices and lien letters but is now resuming that practice, starting with the highest unpaid amounts.
8 On Your Side’s Shannon Behnken walked through the neighborhood and found some residents who say they do receive quarterly bills but others who say they either never received a bill, have received only a couple of bills, or go years in between bills.
Many residents question why they must deal with this utility since Waste Connections picks up trash and Duke Energy services lights.
Better Call Behnken did some digging and discovered Forest Hills bills residents and then contracts out services. Public records show that’s because when the developer, Robert Dreher, developed the community he recorded deed restrictions that give Forest Hills Utilities Inc. the exclusive rights to utilities like trash and light service.
The owner of the utility was Mr. Dreher himself, until he passed away in 2016. The utility remains managed by family members. When reached by phone, Dolly Koulias, the daughter of Mr. Dreher, said she was only recently involved in the company.
State records list her as the vice president, but said her father had listed her, but she wasn’t involved.
Forest Hills insists all residents are billed quarterly and said they already filed a lien against Gentzler in 2008. Gentzler said he had no idea and quickly called the company to try to settle the matter. Public records show numerous liens filed by the utility through the years.
After questions from Better Call Behnken, residents say they were offered payments plans. They still question the billing practices, but say they are thankful for more time to pay.