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After rash of billing complaints, Iorio launches review of water department

TAMPA — Mayor Pam Iorio announced Tuesday an internal review of the water department after a month of upset residents flooding the city with complaints over high water bills.

Water officials have maintained their department is not at fault for the high bills, but now a group of city employees headed by Chief of Staff Darrell Smith will set out to confirm that.

"Having looked at our entire system I think there is room for improvement," Iorio wrote to the City Council. "This doesn't mean a leak isn't a leak, it means that in dealing with the customer from reading the meter to the investigation, we can do better."

The task force will address several theories homeowners have offered to explain the rash of high bills: a glitch in the billing software, broken water meters, and an error in the equation to calculate bills.

The task force will try to verify that the data meter readers enter into handheld devices is accurately recorded and billed by the city's software system. They will also test water meters for accuracy, and ensure the billing equation is correct.

The audit will also explore ways to improve service, such as redesigning the water bills for clarity and revamping the customer service department with staff, training, and upgraded phone and software systems.

In addition, Iorio wants to temporarily join Hillsborough County's meter reading contract in order to get monthly readings for the neighborhoods with the most complaints (New Tampa, Dana Shores, Lake Ellen). Her long-term goal is monthly meter readings for all users. The city currently reads meters every other month, estimating usage in off-months.

Iorio's initial instructions to the task force did not include a probe into a theory residents have posed: that city workers are inaccurately reading meters, or are not reading them at all.

The water department has inspected complaints at more than 100 homes, identifying leaks at 60 percent and over watering or another factor that could have caused a high bill at 40 percent. At two homes, public works administrator Steve Daignault said, there were "slight errors" in the meter readings.

But in maybe the most striking example of an uncharacteristically high water bill, the culprit was an erroneous meter reading, according to the homeowner.

Lawyer Andrew Mirabole, whose usage jumped from less than 750 gallons in September and October to nearly 600,000 gallons in November and December, said a city inspector determined Monday his meter was drastically misread.

The inspector "told me that they made a mistake, the meter reader was somehow in error," Mirabole said. The error "was substantial because there's no way I could've used that water. Anybody with any kind of reason would understand that's impossible."

Daignault had not seen the inspection report and could not confirm Mirabole's account. "What you have told me indicates there was an incorrect reading of the water meter," he said. "Until I see the details, I'm reluctant to characterize."

Iorio said the water department's investigation did not conclude inaccurate meter readings are a problem. But after hearing about Mirabole's bill, she said, "We'll look at that, too. I'll talk to them tomorrow and make sure that's looked at."

The mayor's announcement came hours after City Council Chairman and mayoral candidate Thomas Scott called for an independent audit of the department at a candidates forum.

Later, Scott said in a telephone interview he was not satisfied with an in-house investigation: "I think our credibility is at stake on this particular issue and I'd feel much better if we had an independent audit."

He said he will formally request one at the City Council meeting Thursday.

Daignault said complaints of high water bills have decreased to the same level of this time last year. He said he welcomes the task force's review and the water department will continue to investigate complaints.

"Believe me," he said, "I want to get to the bottom of what's going on more than anybody."

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or jnicas@sptimes.com.

After rash of billing complaints, Iorio launches review of water department 02/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 7:36pm]
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