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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Charlotte's Water Billing Scheme Exposed! Rich vs Poor Customers

Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Water Meter Audit Reveals Billing Issues

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg countywide audit of water meters has found at least 1.4 percent of accounts had a possible problem in recording water usage, which suggests there could be more than 3,000 customers with bills that are currently too high or too low.

In response to customer complaints about high water bills and rude customer service, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities launched an audit this spring of 9,000 of the county's 250,000 meters. The audit is continuing, but early findings show that the utility has a significant problem in how it bills customers.

The audit so far has found 78 residential accounts where there was a mismatch of more than 1 CCF (100 cubic feet) of water usage. The mismatch was between the mechanical water meter, which is considered reliable, and the more error-prone electronic transmitters that send water usage data to the utility.

Some of the mismatches suggested that the customer was billed too much, while others showed the customer was billed too little.

"Some (of the accounts) were for only a few dollars, said Barry Gullet, CMU director. "Some were several hundred dollars."

Gullet was recently named CMU's director. He had been serving on an interim basis since February, when previous director Doug Bean retired after customers complained about unusually high bills and the media detailed problems with CMU's billing.

When faulty equipment has been found, CMU has replaced it, Gullet said. Customers who paid too much have been refunded, he said.

CMU said Monday night that the mismatch rate of 1 percent wasn't unexpected and was within industry norms. The problem for the utility, however, is that a 1 percent error rate means there would be hundreds of customers with erroneous bills.

It's also unclear if some of the meters and transmitters that worked for the audit could malfunction in the future.

CMU is still trying to determine what causes the electronic transmitters to send erroneous information. Gullet said Monday night he thinks humidity could be a culprit.

In the audit so far, CMU's consultant, Kentucky-based Vanguard, has visited 5,726 homes.

There were 78 mismatches and 813 accounts that need further investigation. In those accounts, the consultant couldn't get a reading. In some cases, the transmitter wasn't sending data or the consultant couldn't get to the mechanical meter.

Gullet said some people cover their meters with plants.

"We were reluctant to tear up people's flowers," he said.

It's possible some of those 813 accounts could have mismatches.

The 78 accounts with mismatches didn't necessarily result in incorrect bills, Gullet said. It's possible the mechanical meter and the transmitter could be showing different amounts, but if they are moving in sync, the customer would receive a correct bill.

He also said that CMU's internal computer system is designed to catch unusually high water bills before they are sent to customers. The Observer found this year that the utility declined to investigate a number of unusually high bills - even after the utility's own computers flagged them as being suspect.

Since then, CMU has added additional staff to review and investigate bills that its computers have flagged. It has also tried to be more helpful when customers call and complain about high water bills.

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said the preliminary findings were "a breath of fresh air to have an acknowledgment there is a problem."

Charlotte Water Billing Audit Shows Some Meters Are Off

The latest results on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility water audit show a possible problem in recording water usage.

A CMU official told Charlotte City Council members Monday night that 4,500 water meters have already been checked out.

Seventy-seven percent were working just fine, 22 percent need more checking and one percent were off at least 750 gallons from the transmitter reading. That one percent could mean that 3,000 customers are not billed accurately.

CMU says the Hidden Valley neighborhood and the Peninsula in Cornelius have more meters that need further review than others. But CMU can't explain why.

Mayor Anthony Foxx said he was glad CMU realizes there is a problem.

“It is a breath of fresh air to have some acknowledgement that there is a problem and a sense about what to do about how to move forward with it,” Foxx said.

CMU’s final report will be out in September. By then a third party auditor will have looked at 9,000 meters.

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Sources:, McClatchy Newspapers, WCNC, Google Maps

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