TAMPA — All Tampa water customers are scheduled to have their meters read every month by October, with the first conversions starting this month, city officials said Thursday.
These moves come about a year after hundreds of residents hit City Hall with complaints about shockingly high water bills, some of them five or 10 times above normal.
At the request of Mayor Bob Buckhorn's administration, City Council members voted last October to switch to the monthly readings. Previously, the city had read meters every other month, which officials said contributed to the problem.
The city plans to start the conversions this month in two areas. One is near MacDill Air Force Base south of Gandy Boulevard. The other includes Rocky Point and Dana Shores. Customers in those areas will be billed on Jan. 20.
Each month through October, two more zones will be converted until meters in all 21 of the city's billing areas are being read monthly, officials said. Last year, city officials did a pilot project that brought monthly readings to parts of central Tampa, Hyde Park, North Hyde Park and north Tampa.
Buckhorn acknowledged that the change is "long overdue," and officials said it will give customers bills that show how much water they actually use each month, instead of estimating their water consumption every other month.
Officials also say a more timely accounting of water use will help customers adjust their use to avoid high bills and catch and fix problems like sprinkler system leaks sooner.
Before deciding to pay AMS Utiliserv of Monroe, La., about $367,000 this year to help the city switch to the monthly readings, the city had long read meters every other month.
The problem was, meter readers often were late, sometimes nearly two weeks late. After last year's complaints, city auditors found that customers had extra days of water use tacked onto their bills. Under the city's multi-tiered billing structure, which charges big users at higher rates, those additional days quickly pushed many customers into the higher cost category.
Last 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.
The following month, a city task force concluded that a "perfect storm" of factors caused the rash of high bills: leaks, less rain, fewer watering restrictions and occasionally human error.
Moving to a monthly meter reading schedule was one of the auditors' suggestions for getting billing under control.