Anger, frustration mark town hall on water bills and meter readings

Kathryn Sorensen, Phoenix Water Service director, tried calming angry customers upset over big spikes in their bills./Cronkite News

By Paul Maryniak | Awatukee Foothills News

There were shocking stories of water bills that drew gasps from the audience. There were anguished pleas on behalf of fixed-income seniors and poor families forced to choose between water and rent. There angry expressions of frustration.

What there weren’t were any explanations or solutions Thursday night as a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 Ahwatukee residents confronted the Phoenix Water Services Department for three hours over huge spikes in usage levels and bills – many of which evaporated the following month.

If anything, the mystery deepened and the shock intensified over the wave of erratic bills – many for water usage in July – that have thrown household budgets into turmoil and forced many residents to pay for plumbers to look for leaks that didn’t exist.

Both Water Services Manager Kathryn Sorensen and city Councilman Sal DiCiccio promised to continue investigating the reasons for the erratic bills.

But Sorensen continued to assert that so far her department’s investigation shows no problems with city equipment after it conducted a random survey of 400 of the approximate 16,000 meters in Ahwatukee.

However, she said she would welcome an investigation by an independent third party to determine why so many customers found unusual spikes in their bills.

When she said her department would have to follow standard city protocol for hiring an independent party, several citizens offered to chip in to pay for a review by someone of their choice – not the city’s.

Otherwise, one man explained, “there’s a bureaucracy that’s going to stand in the way of the truth.”

DiCiccio offered to kick in $500 to start the ball rolling on hiring an independent review, although the idea appeared to be shelved for now.

DiCiccio created a panel of five citizens from the meeting who volunteered to help his staff probe deeper.

Noting that City Council members cannot simply access anyone’s water bill, he asked that residents who have been victimized by the sharp spikes to contact his office at 602-262-7491 so his staff could walk them through accessing their account and get the information needed to further the investigation.

But the anger, frustration and even suspicion failed to dissipate despite Sorensen’s assurances that “We are a non-profit entity. We have no incentive to charge you incorrectly for your water. If there is a problem with our system we want to correct it.”

The meeting began on an angry note after DiCiccio outlined the meeting’s agenda, telling the crowd that it would include a presentation by the Water Department on its investigation and his office’s review of city water rates over the last 10 years.

One man shouted to DiCiccio people were there to talk about the unusual readings, not rates. He then stormed out.

When a Water Services staffer began walking people through a Powerpoint explanation of the various parts of a city water bill, the impatient crowd virtually forced the department to abandon a carefully orchestrated presentation.

Then, the horror stories rolled out.

One woman complained how her bill reflected twice the amount of water she uses in a month. The bill was for a month when no one was in the house.

Another detailed his last four months of bills: $187 for 27,000 gallons in June; $522 for 70,000 gallons in July; $251 for about 45,000 gallons in August and $798 for 113,000 gallons in September. Throughout that time, he said, there were neither leaks nor any change in his household’s water usage.

Another woman said her monthly bill shot up from $40 to $450.

Lisa Gomez made an impassioned plea for immediate help especially for seniors with fixed incomes and cash-strapped families already on tight budgets.

She noted that many customers who had subscribed to the department’s auto-pay system suddenly found their budgets wrecked.

“There are so many people who have been charged for overdrafts,” Gomez said. “What is the city going to do with these people who have limited income? It’s a catastrophe right now.”

Several citizens implored the officials to hold customers who have incurred big spikes in bills to last year’s payment levels until the department could determine what caused them.

Sorensen noted that bills are held in abeyance if a customer complains to the city’s consumer advocate office.

So far, based on interviews and reactions from unhappy customers posted on social media, the department’s answer has been consistent: Employees have said the meters are working properly and that the spikes were caused by leaks.

Three weeks ago, Water Services spokeswoman Stephanie Bracken told AFN:

“Understanding that this is an issue of concern in the community, Phoenix Water Services is pulling a random sample of customers in Ahwatukee. We will check their consumption for any unusual variances that might indicate a leak or other type of problem.

“We will also then go out and do a field check to make sure that the manual meter read matches the electronic read. Last, we will double-check the amount billed against the meter reads for this random sample. Using this technique, we should be able to spot any meter- or billing-related problems if they exist… We will share the results at the community meeting.”

Although most of the complaints about erratic meter readings have occurred in Ahwatukee, Stone said complaints are beginning to erupt in other parts of Phoenix.

However, Ahwatukee appears to be the epicenter in Phoenix of a problem that has erupted in other large and small communities across the country in the past six years.

Those complaints have a common thread: All involved communities where so-called “smart meters” have been installed. Those meters digitally relay usage data to hand-held scanners that enable employees to get readings by simply driving down the street.

The city this summer completed an eight-year project to replace all 530,000 analog water meters with the devices at a cost of just under $29 million.

Bracken said the move provided for more accurate readings and saved payroll costs, whittling the total number of fulltime meter readers from a 2004 total of 65 to a current total of nine employees.

The so-called automated meter reading system devices “ensure Water Services accomplishes a 99.9 percent meter-read accuracy, compared to a 97 percent average-read accuracy when the city used manual reads,” Bracken said.

But numerous Ahwatukee customers have been furious about unusual spikes in their bills for one month that are followed by a return the next month to readings more in line with what they’ve seen for years.

Some customers have complained of several months of high readings before their bills showing a return to levels they had been accustomed to seeing.

While most of the spikes appear to have occurred during the summer of this year. The Ahwatukee Board of Management is fighting a $2,400 bill for a December 2016 reading for a meter on a “little drip system” at Desert Ironwood Estates that ABM General Manager Robert Blakesley said was 30 times higher than normal.

He said ABM has refused to pay that bill – and Water Services responded by turning off water in June. The meter monitors water that feeds “a few shrubs and desert foliage,” Blakesley said.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “They keep saying we have a leak and we’ve checked. There is none.”

But the deluge of complaints began over a month ago when the Foothills Gateway HOA complained about its August bill for a meter clocking water usage to a tiny park it owns near 48th Street and Frye Road.

While the normal monthly reading is for 50 gallons, the July usage was recorded at 1 million gallons of water – 20,000 times the normal. The reading for August dropped back to near normal.

Although the HOA’s landscaper found a broken sprinkler head, the association disputed that problem would result in the leak of enough water to fill 100 tanker trucks.

Since that disclosure, dozens of other homeowners have come forth with complaints about meter readings that were anywhere from three to six times their normal monthly levels.

And in those cases where they complained to Water Services, they said, the results were the same: They were told they have a leak.

Stone expressed dismay that the department refuses to consider whether interference from other digital devices may be causing the wildly erratic readings.

“We want information on these meters’ reliability,” he said, suggesting an independent third party is needed to study the meters in more detail.

Bracken said the smart meters the city uses have a failure rate of less than a half-percent.

But Stone said that given the number of complaints, the department can’t continue to hold the meters blameless.

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October 2017