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Tampa audit finds meter-reading flaws peaked as customers complained of shocking water bills

TAMPA — A new city audit details how a water meter-reading problem could have and likely did inflate some customers' bills last winter.

Not only that, internal auditors found that the problem peaked just as hundreds of customers complained of shockingly high bills, some five or 10 times above normal.

At the time, the water department was supposed to read customers' water meters every other month.

Trouble is, the city often was late. Sometimes three or four days late. Sometimes 10 or 12 days late.

As a result, customers had extra days of water use added to their bills. And under the city's multi-tiered billing structure — which charges big users at higher rates — those additional days bumped many customers into the higher cost category.

"The result of the billing cycles exceeding 62 days (two months) was to increase the volume of water included in the monthly bill," auditors said in a 22-page report released Friday.

The problem was "a pretty big contributing factor to some of the issues that we ended up having to deal with last winter," said Elias Franco, the water department's manager of distribution and consumer services.

And it happened a lot.

During a 13-month period that ended in January, auditors found meter readers took longer than 62 days to read the meters of more than a fifth of the city's customers. Of those, nearly half were three to 12 days late.

What's more, the late readings spiked in December and January, just as the complaints exploded.

The audit also raised questions and made recommendations about meter reader staffing levels, the water department's system to identify meter readings that need to be double-checked, documentation of reported problems and investigations of complaints about high water bills.

For example, auditors reviewed the water department's handling of 33 complaints from the Tampa Palms, Dana Shores and Lake Magdalene areas. They found that at least 16 lacked basic documentation of the investigation. As a result of those 33 complaints, the city issued credits to 10 customers, but auditors identified four cases where the credits were incorrect.

The audit was a fair critique, Franco said.

In some cases, "by the time that the first draft of the audit came out, we had already made the change, because we were in total agreement," he said.

Among other things, the water department plans to:

• Move to a monthly meter-reading schedule over the coming fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1. Already, some customers are having their meters read every month. Monthly readings for the rest will be phased in.

On Thursday, the City Council will consider a $367,000 contract with a private contractor, AMS Utiliserv of Monroe, La., to read half the city's meters every month. As proposed, the city would read the other half.

A monthly reading cycle will eliminate problems caused by basing every other month's bill on an estimate, officials say.

• Request four new positions for meter maintenance in next year's budget.

• Take steps to improve meter reader supervision, record-keeping and communication with customers who call in a complaint. Franco said the department also has made some software changes and is looking to make others.

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 can dramatically drive up water 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.

"I think some good things have come out of this experience," Franco said. The audit, he said, "pinpointed and helped justify why some of these changes were absolutely necessary."

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or danielson@sptimes.com.

Tampa audit finds meter-reading flaws peaked as customers complained of shocking water bills 09/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 16, 2011 11:03pm]
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