News

Water bills raising ire of some customers

City: ‘We read meters and don’t estimate’
By MIKE BROWN
Reporter Editor

Some Rockdale water customers are convinced increases in their October water bills are the result of the city estimating usage instead of reading meters.

City officials are just as adamant that they don’t estimate, never lie to customers and recent increases for some reflect new, higher, water rates, designed to start funding a multi-year project to finally rid Rockdale of its notorious red water problems.

And a major change is coming. New electronic water meters are to be installed over the winter, meters the city says will “eliminate the human element” but could also change bills significantly.

At the heart of the disagreement— which might get an airing at the Nov. 18 council session if a fiery Internet info exchange between disgruntled customers over the past week is any indication— is a matter of trust.

‘ESTIMATES’— Some customers accuse the city of lying about whether it actually reads every meter or makes monthly estimates for at least some.

Among the charges on the Internet thread:

• Water bill goes from $39 to $180 every other month.

• One patron called the city to question water readings, said city employees responded and could not even find the residence’s meter.

• Meters have been reported “covered in dirt” even after employees have read them.

• A meter was installed under a deck and “they don’t read it.”

• Bills increase from $50 t0 $80 every couple of months with no changes in usage.

• Rate hikes are understood but “why is my usage doubling?”

• Water bill was $220 for three people in household.

• “I just get the answer that I have a leak.”

The patrons involved in the conversation discussed mass e-mailings, contacting the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), petitions and attending city council meetings to protest.

RED WATER—Together with complaints on pricey water bills, the thread also included plenty of scathing comments on Rockdale’s 60-year-old-plus red water problem.

Ironically, the two situations are connected and at least part of the increases are because of an effort to remedy the red water situation.

Council members raised water and sewer rates five percent in August to fund a $525,000 expenditure designed as the first in a multi-year program to address major renovations to combat the red water that’s caused numerous complaints since at least the 1950’s.

Those new rates kicked in on the water bills sent out in October, according to City Manager Kelvin Knauf.

‘NO ESTIMATES’—That, of course, doesn’t address the question of water meter reading by the city. But Knauf emphatically denies all the charges raised in the Internet site.

“We read the water meters,” he said. “We do not have a ‘catch-up’ month. It is never our policy to estimate the readings.”

“We don’t lie about usage to increase cost, either,” he said.

Knauf said not everyone’s bills increased with the October billing. “Some customers had a lower consumption and some had larger consumption. In fact, the total billing consumption was lower than the comparable time period last year.”

Knauf said the city actually has a range built into the billing program that flags any unusually high readings. “Those meters are then re-read, at no charge to the customer, to see if a mistake has been made,” he said.

He pointed out that the most recent bills covered the period Sept. 13 to Oct. 8, before the recent rainy period began. “Last week we had some rain, so people may think their water bills should be less than what they are,” he said.

As for the meters covered in dirt. “ The meters for the consumption cycle in question were read in early October so sediment may have covered the meter in the meantime,” Knauf said.

HUMAN ELEMENT—A huge change is on the way. In October the council approved purchase and installation of new high-tech meters which should settle any doubts on whether meters are being read.

The old days of an employee walking into a yard, lifting a lid and reading numbers will be replaced by readers cruising the streets and reading meters on a laptop computer.

“ The human element will be taken out of the water meter reading process,” Knauf said. “They will be read once a month and software will allow us to show people their consumption by the date and the hour.”

But, and it’s a big one.

“ The new meters are more accurate than the old meters, so some citizens may experience higher bills unless they change their consumption,” he said.

Knauf said once installed, though, the new meters will allow city crews to focus more on leaks and preventive maintenance instead of water meter reading.

The new meters are expected to be installed by the end of March.

Municipal water and sewer systems may not be funded by general fund (tax) revenues but must be supported solely by fees (water and sewer rates).


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