High Water Bills Don't Hold Water
Startlingly high August water bills landing in Tarrant County this month — some double and triple the cost of July water usage — have many residents steamed and demanding answers.
Most don’t like what they’re hearing.
City utility departments are standing their ground, contending that in almost all cases customers are just using more water than they realize. Understandable, they say, considering how monsoonlike rains in May and early June that filled up area lakes gave way quickly to hot, dry conditions and browned the North Texas landscape.
“This was the first August in three years that we didn’t have some kind of drought restrictions,” said Walter “Buzz” Pishkur, Arlington’s water utilities director, referring to Stage 1 twice-a-week watering that ended in May.
Anita Wiles of north Arlington takes issue with the concept of unrealized water use. Her August water bill — which includes sewer, garbage and storm-water service fees — more than doubled, to $235.98, compared with her July bill. She found comfort in the social media buzz rippling across the area.
“This is craziness. We have a very small yard,” she said.
I called Arlington and asked them about it, and they said, ‘No, you’re watering more more.’ And no, we’re not watering more. We have a water sprinkler [system]. I do turn it on on Wednesdays and Saturdays — the suggested days.
Resident Anita Wiles
Pishkur plans to go before the Arlington City Council on Tuesday “to talk about why we may be seeing some higher bills” and how each complaint will be investigated individually, as always.
“I want to put this whole situation in some kind of context,” he said. “I will tell the council this: We will treat everyone with the respect that I would expect to be treated with.”
But he said the utility has several “fail-safe” checks to help catch meter-reading and bill-calculating mistakes before they reach the customers. Pishkur said he ran the numbers on a random month recently, finding that billing errors occurred in just 12 of the city’s 106,000 water accounts.
“There may be a situation where there is something other than their usage,” he said, but “that’s very extraordinary.”
Mansfield’s director of utilities, Joe Smolinski, in response to a deluge of water-bill complaints, had his crews pull up a dozen meters and send them away for testing.
“And every single one of them has passed,” he said.
There’s a lot of mistrust across the region right now. Checking social media and even the evening news, people are sensationalizing it a little bit. We want to remove any doubt. Nobody cares more about how accurate these are than us.
Mansfield Utilities Director Joe Smolinski
Water bill reactions
In far north Fort Worth, Cristian Alcocer was surprised when his water bill arrived. “I paid it, but an extra $25 was definitely unexpected,” he told the Star-Telegram via Twitter.
On the Star-Telegram Facebook page, Ives Meagher wrote: “Water portion was $134.00, double lot, green grass. Didn’t think it was bad.”
In Garland on Wednesday, about 80 people upset about their water bills turned out at a neighborhood meeting attended by the city staff, according to NBC5. A city official told the station that the city had found no meter malfunctions or evidence that any were misread.
The issue caught fire on the private online forum for residents of Nottingham Estates, a subdivision in a sliver of Grand Prairie that lies in Tarrant County. During three days of the most feverish posting last week, more than 100 residents complained of water bills increasing by 50 percent to more than 200 percent..
One resident, Faye Hanson-Evan, was shocked to see her August water bill of $549.61; her July bill was $149.51.
“It’s one thing to see an increase from July to August,” she said. “But more than triple is not acceptable. I certainly haven’t watered any more than July.”
Another resident, Harvest Moon, said she had expected to see a slight drop in water usage. So she was “floored” when she opened the bill and found a 65 percent increase, along with the bar graph August towering over the previous 12 months in water use.
“That blue bar was a marvel of construction,” said Moon, an instructor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
But customers wanting to check their cities’ math are at a disadvantage, said Paula Wommack, an Arlington-based real estate agent and Wiles’ neighbor.
“You can’t prove anything on the water company,” she said. “There’s no way to dispute an answer like that, because we don’t have access to the statistics. I don’t have a way to measure the amount of water that comes out of my house. Only they do.”
Hourly meter reading
Newer technology promises solutions. Arlington, Mansfield and Grand Prairie are among cities implementing advanced metering infrastructure systems, in which smart meters send hourly readings to the utility versus monthly data collected by a meter reader. The systems can streamline billing processes, find leaks and pinpoint high water use. The benefits, both to utilities and their customers, include helping to resolve bill complaints.
Another plus is phasing out human meter readers and their vehicle expenses, a savings sometimes significant enough to justify switching to the new system, Pishkur said. Arlington’s installation started about three years ago and now has about 40,000 of the city’s 106,000 utility accounts online. Utility crews will switch over the remaining accounts at about 10,000 per year.
Mansfield has installed the new meters at about two-thirds of the city’s 21,000 residential and business customers. Smolinski estimated the rest would be placed at a rate of 1,000 a year.
Grand Prairie has hired a contractor for its $10.25 million project, which would be implemented over five years, starting south of Interstate 20 and working northward, Public Works Director Ron McCuller said.
The systems also provide a very popular and useful customer benefit — online account access, allowing users to closely monitor their water usage — for fun or to catch that major pool leak before it shows up on paper two weeks into the next billing cycle. They could also set up email alerts for when their water use reaches a preset level.
“If customers want to monitor and manage their water and billing, they will finally have powerful tools to do that,” said Doug Cuny, Grand Prairie’s utility customer service manager.
Arlington customers who have been switched over will have access to the online feature starting early next year.
Smolinski said Mansfield utility customers likely won’t get the online access until the entire system is installed and running smoothly. But until then, he can pull up account information for residents questioning their water bills.
“We’re able to give them a level of detail that generally removes all doubt about the quantity and time frame the water was used,” Smolinski said. “The questions they have tend to evaporate.”
Higher rates ahead?
The tsunami of water-bill complaints washing across North Texas the past week has been about water-usage increases, not water rate increases. But those are coming soon to many customers, starting with the new fiscal year on Oct. 1 or the calendar year on Jan. 1.
Here are the rate plans of several Tarrant County cities. Most emphasize that they’re simply passing along the higher costs they’re paying for water and sewage treatment.
The Tarrant Regional Water District and the Trinity River Authority, two of the larger providers in the region, will raise their rates in October by 10.1 percent for water and 7.2 percent for sewage treatment, respectively.
The average water users in January will see a 9.98 percent increase in the water and sewer portions of their bills — a monthly $5.42 increase to help pay for increased operational costs. The hike would generate $23.3 million more for the Water Department.
The City Council on Thursday tentatively approved a water rate hike as part of the 2015-16 city budget. The average residential bill, based on a monthly 8,000 gallons of water and 5,000 gallons of wastewater, would increase by $2.91, or 5.3 percent, to a total of $57.63 per month. The council also agreed to put off the increase to Jan. 1, which Water Utilities Director Walter “Buzz” Pishkur requested because it would amount to a 25 percent customer discount right off the top. The final council vote is Tuesday.
The average water customer, who uses 7,000 gallons water per month, will see a $4.9 percent rate hike starting Oct. 1. The bill will increase by $1.89 to an average monthly total of $39.12. Utilities Director Joe Smolinski said this is the fourth time in five years that the city has raised rates just enough to cover increased charges from its water and sewage treatment providers.
The city, which lies partly in Tarrant County, plans an Oct. 1 rate hike that would raise the average monthly utility bill by 4.5 percent, to $78.25. Public Works Director Ron McCuller said he considers that a fair increase considering that Dallas, which supplies his city with 90 percent of its water, upped its wholesale price by 15.6 percent.
Residential customers will find a 5 percent increase in water and sewer rates in their November bills. A customer using 12,000 gallons of water would pay $6 more per month.