Living with the City
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|Jude Freeman||November 15th 2011|
Ever wonder what you can do if suddenly the water department presents you with a bill five-, six-, or seven-times your established usage. Residents have complained in cities such as Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Cleveland, Charlotte and Brockton, MA, that they have received anomalous one-time bills vastly above their established usage and in virtually all cases, there are no swimming pools, jacuzzis or other explanations for excessive usage. Apparently, the worst cases are in Atlanta, where city auditors found they were "unable to verify electronic meter readings" because of "meter read errors, equipment failures or human errors." Atlanta city auditors estimated that potentially as many as "9 percent of the meters could not be read due to broken or malfunctioning equipment." A leading manufacturer of water meters condeded in a letter to the city of Atlanta, "It has been an industry experience that typically when a utility does an automatic meter reading, meter change-out and also switches software billing companies, that generally high bill complaints are either due to new meter accuracy and/or a billing multiplier error."
Five years ago, the city of Atlanta began installing automated water meters that would enable meter readers to collect data by driving past a property but the issues surrounding billing, appear to have arisen with the introduction of the new meters. The city has some of the highest water rates in the U.S after prices were hiked by 12 percent in July to cover the cost of a huge sewer project.
Jim Beard, deputy commissioner and chief financial officer of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, said that out of the city’s 127,000 water meters, random diagnostics on 9,139 showed that some 25 percent were incorrectly installed, with the antennas being fitted upside down in the meter box rather when they should actually be installed on top of the lid. The installation failings reduced the range of the radio signals that mobile data collectors with hand held units can pick up from a distance of two miles away. Meter readers had to stand directly above the meter box to pick up a reading. “This is not an operational issue affecting the functionality of the meter," said Beard. "What it does is affect the meter reading process. This is not a billing issue.”
Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, chairs the city utilities committee. She is not convinced that the wrongly installed antennas are not related to the incorrect water bills, stating "I am not persuaded. In my mind the number of complaints and the need to correct the antenna problem is related to the bills. I would be surprised if they were not related."
Residents have been questioning inconsistently high water bills for many years now, with some suspecting that their high usage could be down to an unidentified leaks. Last year alone the city credited customers with $466,368 following appeals relating to their water bills.
Home owners in Dana Shores, Tampa, challenged water charges that were up to 10 times higher than usual. Then Mayor Pam Iorio, set up a task force to investigate the discrepancies. Drought conditions, more frequent watering of gardens and irregular meter readings were originally blamed for the higher than usual bills but eventually the task force said that multiple factors were to blame and that complaints should be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
An internal audit was conducted, revealing that delays in meter reading would force some customers into higher water rate tiers. In December 2010 35,000 readings were delayed, with 54,000 delayed in January 2011. It was also discovered that city meter readers were authorized to leave work when they had finished their routes. The report said that this was “an invitation to complete the route as soon as possible and meter readers did not have an incentive to spend any extra time on any one meter.” Meter readers are now required to work a full eight-hour shift. The city plans to contract a private company to read the city’s tens of thousands of meters. Steve Daignault, the city's public works and utilities director, wants to ensure a smooth transition from bi-monthly to monthly meter readings, stating, "This will allow us to be more efficient and hopefully cut down on many of the problems that our customers have been experiencing with billing issues." Officials say that it costs around $1 to have a city worker read each meter individually. Contracted meter readers can carry out the task for around 50 cents.
Online, hundreds of customers in various cities voice their concerns and seek advice regarding inflated water bills. Atlanta’s chief operating officer Peter Aman said the city is keen to figure out the problem as quickly as possible and will “address what issues we have.” He points out that customers can appeal their water bills.
In Ft. Lauderdale, the city made it difficult for a homeowner to protest an anomalous bill, requiring sworn statements, and then never acted them after months of requested. Only after an appeal to city officials did the homeowner get her bill adjusted downward to a guessed compromise level.
A Ft. Worth man, Stephen Geis, was shocked to discover a $19,000 overdraft in his checking. His second shock was a a $19,000 water bill that autodebited his bank account. The real water bill total was only $22. The local newspaper's consumer protection column, the Star-Telegram's Watchdog, investigated and discovered the man had been had been billed 863 times more than necessary, for 3.6 million gallons for one month. That's enough fills five Olympic-size swimming pools. It was a brief nightmare for Geis who had to contend with overdraft fees and a dispute process.
Moral of the story--examine your water bill carefully and if needed, fight back. The meter reading system process is far from foolproof, or water-tight.