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Audit reveals billing problems in Pasco water department

NEW PORT RICHEY — An audit of Pasco County's Utilities Department found accurate meters, but software troubles, inaccurate billing data and faulty internal procedures that need to be corrected.

The discoveries come from the inspector general's arm of the office of Pasco County Clerk and Comptroller Paula S. O'Neil. The review was triggered by customer complaints last summer about exorbitant water bills. O'Neil briefed county commissioners on the findings Tuesday afternoon.

The complaints came from 337 customers, or just 0.34 percent of the county's 97,310 customers, and the audit found that 317 accounts received at least one bill exceeding 120 percent of their annual average water use. The audit recommended the county individually review bills from each of those 317 customers and offer cost adjustments if warranted.

O'Neil ordered the audit after Eugene Foy and Louise Gritmon publicized their monthly bill of more than $3,200 for June 30 to July 18, 2014. The audit offered no explanation for how the couple was billed for 600,000 gallons of water, but it noted some systematic problems, including customers' bills showing inaccurate dates on when their meters had been read.

"Some of the bills reflected read dates when meters were not read, and some accounts received bills where the number of days between reads exceeded 32 days," the audit said. In one instance, a bill showed readings done on a 28-day cycle, even though the customers actually were billed for 62 days of water use.

Other problems included utilities staffers unable to access customer meter boxes.

"It was noted that 42 percent of the service addresses inspected were hindered by the ability to locate meter boxes or poor conditions," the audit said.

On the plus side, O'Neil said 100 percent of the tested meters produced accurate readings, matching the data captured by automated meter-reading equipment.

O'Neil's recommendations, some of which have been put in place already, include: ensuring that staffers have access to meter boxes; filling out data fields accurately on customer bills; setting up a review process for reports of excessive water use; and establishing procedures for the billing processes and for better management oversight.

"We can do better, and we're going to make every effort to do better for utility customers," commission Chairman Ted Schrader said after hearing the findings.