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The Watchdog: Water meter reading turns into flood of errors

12/24/2011 9:34 PM

12/25/2011 6:24 AM

Stephen Geis checked his bank account online and found an unexpected overdraft of $19,000 from his account. Minutes later, his wife called and told him their monthly Fort Worth water bill had arrived in the mail totaling $19,000.

What happened? Error upon error upon error.

His actual water use for the month totaled a measly $22. But he wouldn't learn that until The Watchdog investigated. Geis also never learned the cause of the problem until I told him later. Water Department staffers later tried to explain it to him, but the words they used were so confusing that it made no sense.

Geis had been billed for 3.6 million gallons of water his family had supposedly used in one month. That's enough to fill more than five Olympic-size swimming pools.

Put another way, his bill was about 863 times higher than it should have been.

Fortunately for Geis, he had overdraft protection on his account so only one check to somebody else bounced because of the city's error. But before the drama ended last week, Geis had to pay a $35 bank charge and postage to send certified letters of complaint to the city. He also made three frustrating trips to his bank to clear the matter up and made phone calls and sent faxes to city staffers. He says he spent three hours of work time on the matter, and since he's a lawyer, those hours don't come cheap.

To top it off, the city demanded that he refund an additional $19,000 that he kept in his bank account for two weeks after the city reversed the charge and the bank did, too. That meant he suddenly went from negative $19,000 to positive $19,000.

City staffers demanded it back, but they wanted him to do a costly wire transfer from his bank, which he declined, or they wanted him to come to City Hall and pay in person, which he also declined. When a city staffer called him about it last week, a city official told me later, he hung up the phone. But Geis says he didn't hang up.

He merely told the staffer he was sending another fax with his questions about the refund, and he would talk to the staffer after the fax arrived at City Hall.

Only when the city provided him with a post office box so he could mail the $19,000 back did he do so. And don't think he could have mailed the check to the regular address that collects payments, because that turns out to be a different postal address than the one the city wanted him to use.

In the city's defense, a department spokeswoman explains that the $19,000 overcharge was removed from his checking account a day after he alerted the city.

But for Geis, that didn't end his water bill nightmare.

So how did this happen?

First, I'll share the city's explanation given to me and to Geis, and then I'll try to translate.

"Our Meter Services group was updating meter inventory records in our billing system to add meter warranty data. A change to the meter inventory record resulted in all previous meter readings being reset to zero, as noted in the consumption history chart on the billing statement.

"The meter reading on Nov. 9 was 4807.50. The system should have subtracted from the last meter reading of 4799.10 reflecting a total monthly consumption of 8.4 ccf. Instead, the billing system subtracted 4807.50 from zero and billed consumption at 4807.50 ccf."

OK, here's what that means. The water billing system messed up and didn't compare the previous month's usage to the next month's usage. Instead, the automated system took all the water used from the very beginning of the meter's operation many years ago and billed for all water used ever in that one month bill -- five Olympic-size pools' worth.

The error was compounded when the system discovered the higher-than-normal usage and a field investigator was sent to Geis' address to look for obvious leaks. Finding none, the investigator signed off on the usage as correct, and the bill went through as an accurate one.

"Yeah, you're right," city spokeswoman Mary Gugliuzza said. "Someone should have caught that this was an outrageous amount for a residential billing, and that wasn't done. But we corrected the error immediately."

Yet there was another error: The city sent him the first page of a two-page letter. Then the city resent the letter, but only the second page arrived.

Also, Geis expected another of his checks to bounce because of a lack of funds in his account -- one to the Internal Revenue Service. Fortunately, it didn't. "That's all I need: The big gorilla after me," he said.

When it comes to bills, the big gorilla is all relative.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043

Twitter: @davelieber

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