TAMPA — The city of Tampa is moving ahead with plans to hire private meter readers to make sure that every water meter in the city is read once a month.
The goal: avoid a repeat of last winter's controversy over shockingly high water bills — some 10 times above normal — sent to hundreds of water department customers.
"It's been no secret that our water meter readers have been challenged," City Council member Lisa Montelione said. "It's been causing a great deal of angst amongst our water customers."
But she said paying AMS Utiliserv of Monroe, La., about $367,000 in the coming year to read half the meters in the city should show that Tampa officials are trying to bring the problem under control.
The city has long read meters every other month, but last winter's controversy revealed problems with the approach.
For one thing, meter readers often were late, sometimes nearly two weeks late.
As a result, customers had extra days of water use tacked onto their bills, according to a recent internal audit. Under the city's multitiered billing structure, which charges big users at higher rates, those additional days quickly bumped many customers into the higher cost category.
In February, city officials began work on a pilot program to read some customers' water meters monthly. Around the same time, the city suspended its two highest water rates, which could dramatically drive up bills in cases of leaks or high usage.
In March, a city task force concluded that a "perfect storm" of factors caused the rash of high bills: leaks, less rain, fewer watering restrictions and, in some cases, human error.
Moving to a monthly meter reading schedule was one of the auditors' suggestions for getting billing under control.
But two council members oppose hiring the outside company for the job.
During the council's Oct. 6 meeting, Council member Mary Mulhern said the water department should not look outside to solve the problem.
"We should be able to do it better because we have the experienced people as opposed to hiring untrained people through a company that's not even based in Tampa," she said.
Council member Frank Reddick questioned why the water department wants to hire an outside company, especially since the solid waste department recently ended a contract with Waste Services Inc., to run the McKay Bay transfer station. Having city employees run the station is projected to save $1 million a year.
If that approach works in solid waste, why would it not work in the water department? "There's conflict in messages that you're sending," Reddick said.
In this case, hiring a private contractor would save money, officials told council members.
"We want to keep costs down," Tampa public works administrator Steve Daignault told the council. "This is a significant costs savings vs. hiring city employees long-term and bringing them in."
Council members voted 5-2, with Mulhern and Reddick in dissent, to approve the contract with AMS Utiliserv and move forward with the plan. While some meters are already being read on a monthly basis, city water department director Brad Baird said it will take a year to start reading all of them once a month.
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.