Open letter to City Water Customers from Don Greeley, Director
On behalf of the entire Department of Water Management, I want to reiterate our sincere apologies for the concerns raised by the recent back-billing applied to some of our customer accounts without prior notification.
Our team takes full responsibility for failing to ensure that all affected customers were contacted prior to receiving the bill with the extra amount, and that the reason for the back-billing was not fully explained to them.
We also understand that for some customers, the amount of the back-bill creates a financial hardship. That is one of several reasons that we are placing back-billing on hold until further notice as we review and update all the processes and protocols for equity and accuracy.
We also acknowledge that continuing the practice of allowing approximately 3,000 meters to be estimated well beyond the accepted practice of two-to-three months was problematic and should not have occurred. Digging deeper into the billing and meter-data transfer process is just one of many steps we’ll pursue in our efforts to update account information and clean-up the database.
For bills that have already been issued, we will make sure the accounts are flagged to ensure they are not disconnected due to the adjustment that has been applied to the account.
Going forward, we’d like to also reassure our customers that we are committed to correcting these issues and ensuring that, if any leaks occurred at the site during the timeframe that bills were estimated, adjustments - as a credit - will be made to the account as well.
Again, we apologize for the inconvenience and angst that this issue created for our customers.
The City’s service area is divided into 16 districts for meter reading, with 4 districts being read each week. Data collectors drive the routes, collecting the meter readings electronically from the automated meters. Data from each district is reviewed and processed by Water and Sewer Maintenance staff and then forwarded to the Customer Billing staff, who ensure accurate importing of the reading file into the billing software, resolve issues, and then send the billing file to the third party vendor which prints and mails the bills to our customers.
If there are issues with the meter reading, an estimated reading may be used to calculate the bill so that it is processed with the rest of the district. Practice has been to estimate no longer than three months, allowing time for field staff to diagnose and correct the meter reading issue. During this timeframe, customer bills are estimated using an average of previous usage. Unfortunately, this practice does not catch leaks on the customer’s side in a timely manner or reflect seasonal increases in usage, such as irrigation.
,Back-billing is a standard process that is used to address issues other than the inability to get a reading from the meter. Examples include when a customer transfers accounts to a new residence or when staff resolves leak issues.
At the heart of this current issue is a failure to diagnose and repair/replace meters in a timely manner, creating a backlog of accounts that were being estimated, some for as many as 20 months. In February 2019, Customer Billing Services assigned two staff members to begin addressing the backlog of estimated accounts. While progress was being made, it was not enough so additional staff was brought in to the process in June 2019. It was at this time that several missteps in our protocol occurred, which included:
- Letters were not consistently sent in advance notifying our customers of the back-billing issue.
- Some letters did not have the correct information
- Accounts were not flagged to prevent cut-off for non-payment
Once these issues were identified, our staff was retrained on proper protocols and procedures.
As of the end of the July 2019 billing cycle, there are approximately 3,000 account that remain to be addressed. The breakdown is:
- Accounts estimated between 2 & 6 months: 1,188
- Accounts estimated between 7 & 12 months: 906
- Accounts estimated more than 12 months: 932
- Total number of estimated accounts: 3,022* (3.2% of customer accounts)
As of this posting, the following steps have been put in place to prevent recurrence of this issue:
- Adopted a standard that NO accounts will be estimated more than two months
- Staff resources in Customer Billing Services and Water & Sewer Maintenance will be reallocated, as necessary, to catch up on the backlog and maintain the adopted standard
- Workflow processes between the two work units will be reviewed and updated
- Monthly reporting will capture progress
Again, Water Management deeply regrets the concerns this issue has raised, and we’ll be working hard to regain your customers trust. For questions and concerns regarding this process, please call Durham One Call (919-560-1200) and they will forward you directly to our staff for assistance.