Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:
Question: I’ve had a couple of people ask me about unusually high City of Asheville water bills this year — bills that were three or four times higher than normal. One story a reader passed on was that a City of Asheville Water Resources Department employee was not driving around and getting meter readings as assigned and essentially just made up water usage figures. This resulted in very low bills, which the city had to then correct with unusually high bills.
My answer: OK, but other than not providing water for days on end around Christmas, and then a rogue meter reader just making stuff up, the water department is running like a Swiss watch.
Real answer: Initially, the City of Asheville suggested this may have been a problem with batteries in automated meter readers running low or dying. While that was part of the problem, it also turns out there was an employee not properly reading the meters and reporting usage that was too low.
City Communications Specialist Jessica Hughes responded to my follow-up queries, including one asking if an employee had shirked meter reading duties.
“Yes, and the employee has been held accountable,” Hughes said via email. “The City of Asheville Water Department’s work to update the inaccurate meter reads has been completed.”
I asked if the employee had been fired, and just how many bills were affected.
“The employee was terminated,” Hughes said, noting I could obtain the termination letter but only by filing a public records request, which can take weeks.
As far as how many customers were affected, Hughes could not give a definite number. She said city meter readers cover a different geographic area each day and are not assigned one location.
“In an abundance of caution all meters in the city that did not send out a radio signal were manually read during the latest billing cycle,” Hughes said. “Due to the nature of the meter readers’ positions and incident response, a specific number of impacted customers cannot be determined. However, the city can confirm all customers have now received a bill with the correct meter reading which includes all of the consumption not previously billed.”
Hughes also offered some more details on how the city handles inaccurate billing.
“When an error in billing is identified, we make every effort to identify the source,” Hughes said. “If the issue stems from employee performance, we follow our processes to correct the performance and hold the employee accountable.”
The malfunctioning meters did play a role here, as they made it necessary for someone to read meters manually. The city’s webpage about the new meters addresses this, although it leaves out any information about the wayward former employee.
The webpage states in part:
“The City of Asheville Water Department realizes that some customers have experienced unexpectedly high bills as a result of an underperforming Automated Meter Reading, or AMR, transmitter. A high utility bill associated with a failed transmitter is usually preceded by an unusually low utility bill. The Water Department makes every effort to notify customers by mail prior to receiving a high bill related to transmitter failure as the problem is identified.”
The page further explains that the “mechanical part of the current water meters are measuring usage correctly, however if the transmitter has failed the water meter has to be manually read.”
“After two consecutive zero reads occur, a work order is created to manually read the water meter,” the page states. “The correct read from the meter is then used to generate a bill that includes all unbilled consumption. The City of Asheville is evaluating options to further mitigate zero reads by manually reading water meters registering zero consumption, as well as other options.”
This is also partly why the city is replacing this system with an Advanced Metering Infrastructure system. See more about that below.
Question: (Part II of the water woes questions) A few neighbors are surprised at their water bills — almost double their normal bill for two months. There is a possibility that they did what they were told to do to prevent frozen pipes for the two weeks of water problem — leaving faucets trickling. Is there any plan for Asheville Water Resources to cut customers any slack on water bills for that cycle? And what is the status of Water Resources upgrading the meter sending units? In Candler we kind of assume we are last on the list for such upgrades.
My answer: At this point, I think you just hope the person upgrading your meter is not the same one who took a pass on actual meter reading.
Real answer: I went back to Jessica Hughes, the city communications specialist, for this one.
“The city is not removing any charges for water that went through the meter,” Hughes said. “Customers who need extra time to pay are being offered a six-month payment plan.”
As far as those new meters, Hughes said, “The first of the new meters are expected to begin being used in early June. This is a two-three year project with about 500 meters a week being replaced.”
The city notes on its webpage that, “Replacement of the system is actually more cost effective than replacing the batteries on the AMR system currently reaching end of life.”
“The system will also allow customers to monitor their water consumption through a real time dashboard,” the city states. “This will allow both customers and the Water Department to identify potential leaks or other issues that could result in an unexpectedly high bill.”
“The Water Department and outside contractors are currently working to procure equipment, finalize easements, and map out installation of data collectors to best address the needs of our more than 63,000 residential and business customers in Buncombe and Henderson counties,” the city page says.
Got a question? Send it to John Boyle at email@example.com or 828-337-0941.