Are people paying too much for city water?

News editor

Check your monthly Marion utility bill. If your water readings past and present are the same, there’s a chance you’ll be overbilled in a subsequent month.

The Record discovered the problem with the city’s electronic billing system and brought it to the attention of city administrator Roger Holter, who after more than a week of study agreed overcharges could happen and policy revisions should be considered.

“At first, I could not figure out how this could possibly come into play,” Holter said. “But now I have a better understanding, and we’ll look at those policies.”

Here’s how it happens:

The city’s base rate for water is $30 a month. The base rate includes the first 1,000 gallons used. Each additional 1,000 gallons adds $5.05 to your bill. Bills list usage in 1,000-gallon increments, rounded down to the nearest whole unit.

In a normal situation, a customer using between 2,000 and 2,999 gallons in a month would show usage of 2 units and owe $35.05 — $30 for the base amount, including the first 1,000 gallons, and $5.05 for 1 excess unit over the first 1,000 gallons.

If, however, your bill shows zero usage in one month because of a skipped meter reading, you essentially lose your “free” first 1,000 gallons.

When your meter reading catches up and records that usage in a subsequent month, you end up being billed for two months’ usage in one month, triggering the surcharge for excessive usage even though your actual usage fell within the “free” limit.

Say you use 1,000 to 1,999 gallons a month for each of two months. If your meter were read each month, you would owe no surcharge. If, however, two months’ usage — 2,000 to 3,998 gallons, or 2 or 3 units — was billed as if it occurred in one month, you would owe a surcharge of $5.05 or $10.10.

Water usage is measured automatically, without human verification. Normally, when an anomalous reading much greater or lower than previous readings occurs, it triggers a manual inspection of the meter.

However, this may not happen, Holter said, for 151 “low use” households that on average consume just 1,000 to 1,500 gallons per month.

“It’s primarily retired individuals; a lot of them are isolated to our public housing,” Holter said.

Average households use between 4,500 and 5,500 gallons per month.

When electronic meter readings for those households show a 20 percent or greater variance from a prior month, and when no usage is recorded, the city’s billing software triggers an alert for someone to read the meter manually. That reading is then used to compute the bill.

This procedure typically would not impact “low use” households because the software does not trigger manual checks for those accounts.

“I’ve been under the impression we had about 20 to 25 re-reads a month going on, but this last month we had 49 re-reads that had to occur where they do have to go out and check it,” Holter said.

The Record documented one case in which a residential customer — a “low use” user —had three separate periods of no readings being taken over the past two years.

In each of the first two periods in which no readings were taken, the customer was overbilled by $5 in a subsequent month. The third situation has yet to be resolved because no reading has been made for six consecutive months, building up a potential overcharge of $30 — even more depending on how the new rate is applied when the situation is resolved.

“There’s a defective component if it has not moved at all in that time frame,” Holter said. “Either the meter is bad, or the ERT (encoding receiver transmitter) is not transmitting. They’ve been in the ground 5½ years now; we could be seeing some battery failures.”

Whatever the cause, the customer has been using water. Although city bills consistently list the customer’s meter as reading 134, when the Record examined the meter Tuesday it read 159, not 134.

Those 25 unbilled units, if suddenly added to the customer’s bill, would cost $121.20 under current rates. However, $30 of that should have been included within the “free” base allowance.

Initially skeptical, Holter said he learned enough through additional investigation to conclude that changes should be made.

“What good does it do to not have processes in place that are fair for everybody?” Holter said. “If we were a for-profit company, forget it. We’d draw a line in the sand and say that’s the way it is.

“We’re owned by you and I, so we’ve got to make sure it’s fair. If systematically the possibility exists like this, then it’s best even for those who sit on the (utility) review board to have a set of guidelines that we follow in this situation.”

One change Holter said he would propose to the city council is to give credit for months in which usage hasn’t been billed or recorded. This should eliminate overbilling.

“I’ll call them true-up situations,” he said. “We’ll make it a policy to go back on the billing so if it’s three months, six months, we’ll carry forward that credit against the usage.”

Concluding that missed usage readings result from mechanical or electronic failures, Holter also wants to start doing regular inspections of meters at low-use households.

“Annually, or maybe every six months, we would do a manual read on our low-user accounts just to verify everything is working and up to speed,” he said. “As a consumer, wouldn’t you expect that meter to be checked once a year or twice a year?”

Holter said he thought these changes would address the problem.

“Based on our conversations, those are the two paths I can see that would assure that fairness existed if this situation occurred,” he said. “I’ll go before the city council in the very near future and request these policy changes.”

Nationwide, electronic metering of utility usage has been greeted by considerable controversy and allegations of overcharging. In the past, local officials have blamed most sudden increases in water bills on such things as leaky toilets, which can in fact account for considerable increases in water bills.

Current city ordinances allow for correction of readings from defective meters but specifically forbid corrections extending prior to the date of the last monthly reading.

Given sufficient grounds, a utility review board can adjust disputed billings or set up payment plans, Holter said.

Last modified Feb. 9, 2017

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