Utility plans to reform billing cycles, poorly worded bills

by Frank DeLoache

DAVIDSON – At least 106 residents of the River Run community – and up to 593 homes – received bills in late July that covered 39 days of service, meaning their bills were higher than normal.

The higher bills prompted protests from some of the River Run residents and renewed concerns from the mayors of Davidson and Cornelius about the way the utility and 311 are handling customer service. And Utilities Communications Manager Vic Simpson said this week that inaccurate information on the front of the bill aggravated the situation.

The front of the bill shows how much water a customer used and the rates charged. The utility increases the rate – in four phases, or tiers – as customers use more water. When River Run residents got the extended bills, that chart showed them paying the highest rate for the extra water.

But that chart is inaccurate, Simpson said this week.

He said the customers did not have to pay the higher rate for the extra days of normal water use. Instead, the utility has a computer program that recognizes too-long billing periods and adjusts the customers’ rate so they aren’t paying for the additional water used at the highest rate listed. Although the customer’s bill remains higher, their next bill would cover a shorter service period and should have dropped to somewhat less than average.

Each month, several hundred customers throughout the county fall into billing cycles ranging from 34 to 39 days, so the utility has regularly adjusted those bills, Simpson said.
But the inaccurate rate information printed on the front of the bill – as well as the extended billing cycles – offer two examples of problems utility officials want to correct.

The River Run billing problem occurred as an independent consultant was auditing electronic meter-reading equipment, part of a larger sample of 9,011 utility customers. The River Run accounts were temporarily pulled from the system during the audit and then not returned to the system until the billing cycle had reached 39 days, Simpson said. While the total amount due on the bill was correct, the itemized water rate charges told customers – inaccurately – they were charged a higher rate.

Utility officials have been explaining the situation when River Run residents call, and such glitches have shown administrators they must “get out ahead of problems and try to explain to customers before they are surprised,” Simpson said.

But the utility is making changes or is acknowledging problems and working on solutions. They include:

Adjusting disputed bills

Utility officials have quietly implemented a new policy allowing a one-time adjustment in some cases of disputed water bills.

City Manager Curt Walton approved new guidelines for “adjusting disputed water bills” in March, Simpson said, and the new policy does not apply to every high bill. That’s one reason officials have not trumpeted the change loudly.

Utility officials may apply the one-time adjustment after taking a series of steps:

• An inspector will examine the utility’s equipment and check for apparent leaks on the customer’s side of the meter.

• If the inspector doesn’t find an obvious cause for the higher bill, a supervisor will make a second visit to the home, check maintenance history of the utility’s equipment and also review the customer’s history of water use.

• Still lacking an explanation for the higher bill, the utility then will defer the excessive part of the bill for two months to monitor the customer’s water use.
If higher water use continues, the customer remains liable for all the charges.

If the bill returns to the lower historical average, however, utility officials will waive the excess part of the earlier bill, Simpson said. The utility is exercising the one-time bill adjustment in about 20 to 30 cases a month, out of 250,000 monthly bills, Simpson said.

“It is a tool that has helped resolved some of the unexplained uses,” Simpson said.

Varying billing cycles

The utility aims to bill customers for anywhere from 28 to 33 days, “with 30 days being the ideal,” Simpson said.

But in a recent presentation to Charlotte City Council, utility Director Barry Gullet said billing became inefficient and more vulnerable to the extra-long billing cycles as the system grew rapidly.

Over time, the utility has placed all its customers in one of 19 billing groups or cycles. The utility’s meter trucks have to drive through neighborhoods in each group each month and download the meter readings before driving to neighborhoods in the next group. One of the problems, Simpson said, is the customer groupings vary widely in size, from as small as 5,000 to as large as 25,000.

And the customer groups are not always located next to each other, so sometimes  meter-reading trucks can’t go from one group to the next adjacent group, Simpson said. Utility officials established the groups as different parts of the county developed.

So if bad weather prevents utility employees from reading one group on time, or a computer glitch causes problem in the system, the utility may delay billing for other groups of customers – who may then see bills that cover more days.

The longer billing cycle can happen anywhere in the county, Simpson said, but they are more often in newly developed parts of the county, and a number of the newer billing groups are located in north Mecklenburg.

Curing this problem is more complicated, and utility officials don’t expect to reform that part of the system until late next year.

Clarifying bills

Utility officials hope to make two changes to customer bills in coming months.

First, for customers getting billed for 34 to 39 days of service, the bill will change to accurately reflect the rate the customer is paying.

Utility officials also expect to soon change wording on bills going to customers who have asked the utility for an investigation. Right now, if a customer disputes a bill, utility officials open an investigation and agree to set aside the disputed part of the bill, Simpson said. The utility does require the customer to continue paying the average amount he or she would expect to be billed – and subsequent monthly bills they get during the investigation.

But the bills those customers get – as the utility investigation is under way – adds language saying the customer is “delinquent,” when they aren’t. Simpson said. When customers see “delinquent,” however, they feel the utility has broken its promise. In some cases, they stop paying altogether, and that can lead to the utility cutting off water service.

Utility officials plan to eliminate the “delinquent” language on the bill during a high-bill investigation, and Simpson advised customers to continue paying subsequent bills until the utility completes its investigation. Simpson said the utility will not cut off any customer’s service during a high-bill investigation as long as the customer continues to pay their bill as arranged.

“It’s very, very important that they call 311 and let us know their concerns,” Simpson said. “People have to have water. We understand that. We’re going to work with our customers, but it’s very important to talk to us.”

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