Residents and Parents Complain About Aspen Heights Bills

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COLUMBIA - Parents and residents of a Columbia student-housing complex are demanding answers from management about high utility bills.

High utility bills are the latest in the saga of problems for Aspen Heights. Parents said bills reached $500, $600 and even $700 for a single billing period.

"If appliances are not running, and you've turned your thermostat down to 60 to 68 degrees, and you're not living there, how can a bill be $800?" asked Steve Pizzolato, whose daughter lives in Aspen Heights.

On Jan. 24, Aspen Heights sent an email to residents explaining it was implementing a winter utility cap. The cap will limit residents to only paying $75 for utilities in December, January and February. The cap will also extend to next winter.

At a meeting on Jan. 30, residents still had concerns about utility payments. KOMU 8 News tried to attend the meeting but was not allowed in. After the meeting, one resident sounded off.

"One person brought up, 'hey my utility bill was $600.' And then, 'hey, me too, me too, me too, what about me? How's that gonna affect me?'" resident Alex Thornton said. "Then [Aspen Heights general manager's] solution to that was to say 'well, you're gonna have to pay it up front and we'll send out an email later on talking about how we might reimburse you.' And people straight up said 'we don't have the money to do that right now. We don't have the money to pay these 600 and 700 dollar utility bills.'"

Thornton also said this is a 12-month issue, not a three-month issue. When we asked general manager Tyler Yates about the summer months, he said if there was an issue in the coming months, the company would look into it.

In an email to residents on Feb. 3, Aspen Heights further clarified the cap. The email provided a link to which residents were asked to submit a photo of their bill. The email then explained that once the bill is received, the "resident ledger will be credited."

The winter utility cap comes in response to an internal investigation Aspen Heights began in early December to determine why utility bills are so high. President Greg Vestri said very cold temperatures raised bills across the nation, including in Columbia. Shelli Cusack, Vice President of Asset Management and Operations, said the three tier billing system in Columbia also contributed to the bills.

"We noticed that the usage obviously was, you know, exceeding the allowed kilowatt hours by the city at the standard rate, and so everyone was paying, once they exceeded that allowance, everyone was paying a higher rate," Cusack said.

Cusack also said the investigation is not over, and Aspen Heights will continue to research possible causes.

"We need to go back and double check, triple check, all of our units and just make sure that we are providing the best weatherproofing of each unit that we can possibly provide and look for any efficiencies that we can improve upon," Cusack said.

Parents are also looking for improvements in other areas of Aspen Heights. Pizzolato is spearheading an effort by a group of parents to get answers from Aspen Heights. The group met in Fenton, Mo., on Feb. 1 to discuss what they want from Aspen Heights moving forward. They drafted a letter to management, requesting a better security plan, a year-round solution to utility bills, an investigation into causes and permanent solutions, and a face-to-face meeting with corporate management.

Pizzolato is also in support of the formation of a parents advisory board at Aspen Heights. He hopes this board can meet with Aspen Heights at the end of this year to debrief what happened and provide the company with input from parents. Pizzolato hopes this group will lead to increased communication between management, parents and residents. Even if his daughter does not live at Aspen Heights next year, Pizzolato is still committed to forming the group.

"I think it's something that I could devote my time to and it's something I that could be good at," Pizzolato said. "I'm in it for the long haul."

Pizzolato hopes the group will improve communication because parents said communication has not been what they expected.

"I called again...for the 15th time to talk to management...and guess what...for the 15th time they are busy and can't talk. Wow," parent Debi Campbell wrote on Facebook.

"At the end of the day, every single parent that I talked to literally were on their last wits because no one at Aspen Heights had been getting ahold of them," Pizzolato said.

When we asked Cusack about the communication problems, she was concerned.

"If someone has been trying to get in touch with management or, you know, even corporate, and they are not getting a call back, I mean that's, obviously, that's bothersome to us and we wanna know about it," Cusack said.

Communication is improving at least for one person since we contacted Cusack. After months of Beale trying to get answers from Columbia Aspen Heights management, Cusack is now directly answering Beale.