BALANCE SHEET BLOG – HOLLYWOOD, FL


Water Billing Nightmare: 2011
March 22, 2011, 12:17 AM
Filed under: City Commission, City Staff, Water-Sewer-Sanitation

March 22, 2011

The Cost of Water and The Water Billing Mess

Is your water costing double or triple what it used to? Over-bills, back-bills, no bills? Has Hollywood’s water billing gone crazy?  What’s going on?

Higher water rates and chaos in the billing department seem to tell at least part of the story.  Faulty meters may explain the rest. Then add to the mix the over-stressed, and bordering-on-nasty customer service, and there’s no doubt that there’s a problem.  It’s important to say that not everyone is experiencing this headache and we don’t really know why only some of us are affected.

This article is for those who are having water billing problems.

What You Can Do

1) If you have an irrigation meter, you are going to be paying a lot more for the water on that meter under the plan now in effect.  The days of cheap water in South Florida are coming to an end.  The South Florida Water Management District is requiring all cities to conserve water by adopting some sort of tiered structure. Irrigation is considered a discretionary use and is billed at a higher rate in Hollywood’s plan.  A copy of the city’s rate structure and a detailed city explanation can be found at this link on the city’s website.

2) If your bill is too high and you have your own water meter, you can check for a possible leak yourself without hiring a plumber.  Here’s how: Turn off the water in your home and then look to see if the little dial next to the string of numbers on your water meter is still running.  If it’s not running, there’s no leak.  Exactly how to do this is explained on the city website at this link.

3) If you do have to hire a plumber, or lay out money another way, to repair a leak, you may be eligible to apply for a High Use Credit from the city.  However, there is a 90-day time limit for exercising this remedy, starting from the date of the high use.  The form to use and the rules that apply are found on the city website at this link.

4) Check your water bills to make sure the meter readings cover no more than a 33-day period.  If your bill is for a longer period, it needs to be reviewed to be sure the rate is correct.

The Hollywood Council of Civic Associations (HCCA) is collecting information about billing problems to press for reform at city hall that will eliminate the confusion and chaos that has pervaded water billing.

information about billing problems to press for reform at city hall that will eliminate the confusion and chaos that has pervaded water billing.

Why We’re Having Billing Problems

The city’s finance department, along with an outsourced private contractor responsible for the physical reading of the city’s 40,000 water meters, handles water billing. In June 2009, the finance department began to implement two separate city commission-approved programs. One is a complex tiered water rate structure intended to promote conservation, and the other is automated water meter reading (known as AMR). Implementation of these two programs simultaneously upset and swamped the water billing process.

It appears our elected officials weren’t well enough informed about the changes these two programs entailed and that it would be too much for the billing department to manage all at once. Why is the commission taking action without receiving a full staff briefing that includes such potential negative consequences?  Unfortunately, many staff reports read as if written by cheerleaders for projects being proposed for commission approval.  This appears to have been the case with the AMR and tiered water rates. Suppose they had implemented these programs one at a time instead of simultaneously?  It seems likely that at least some of the problems could have been avoided with a little more foresight.

Both of these new programs began to affect the billing department immediately.  AMR required the city to purchase additional software and program it to work with the existing billing system.  Getting the two programs to communicate correctly has taken literally years of trial and error. This testing is still going on.  Additionally, the city’s 40,000 water meters (residential and business) needed new heads and meter box lids installed to accommodate the AMR.

At the same time, the Finance Department was installing and testing the new, more complex tiered rate structure that requires, believe it or not, a total of 1,149 different rates for water and sewer services.  Teams of city staff worked tirelessly to test that new rates were set up correctly, but a host of problems came to pass despite all their efforts.

Without going further into the whole mess, there are three particularly vexing problems.

1) It is doubtful the wi-fi network itself can be made to work reliably. To the extent the network fails, so too AMR based on wi-fi fails. The city now recognizes that the wi-fi network will not work city-wide, so meters in significant sections of the city will have to be read another way.

Wi-Fi Project on the Brink

None of the proposed wi-fi programs is working. Since contracting with Johnson Controls in 2008 to create a citywide wi-fi network, the city has spent countless hours of staff time and effort trying to bring this program online. The result has been one failure after another.
The city took out a loan in 2008 to pay Johnson Controls close to $14 million up front. The city is obligated to continue paying the debt service on this loan while achieving none of the cost benefits it anticipated from this project. The contract with Johnson Controls requires that company to reimburse the city each year that specified savings are not achieved. As a result of this provision, Johnson Controls provided the city with a check for some $926,000 in January 2011.
But the payment from Johnson Controls comes nowhere near compensating the city for the enormous amount of staff time — every week, every month, all year — spent trying to correct the costly unanticipated consequences of this doomed project.

2) The tiered rate structure is a complex set of escalating rates depending on how much water is used in a 33-day cycle.  If the meter reading is delayed for any reason and covers more than 33 days, we have “off-cycle billing,” which is likely to push the water usage into a higher rate tier, resulting in an inaccurate, higher water bill.  At one point, the water billing staff was struggling with 4,438 accounts in off-cycle billing.

3) Hollywood’s AMR requires a special wi-fi-readable lid that sits on top of the meter box.  In many of our low-lying neighborhoods, the lids dislodge or float away when it rains.  This problem has yet to be solved, though a number of different lids are being tested. When the lids are dislodged from the meter box, no automated reading can occur.

Please help us identify water billing problems so the city can correct them. Report yours to HCCA. If you’ve already reported your billing problems to your civic association, HCCA will have them.

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