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Citizens Confront Council On Water Bills
Riverbank resident Scott McRitchie, at podium, was one of several citizens who spoke to the city council last week about what seems to be a string of erroneous billing statements sent out recently. Complicating the issue is the conversion to new water meters and upgrading computers and software in the citys finance department. Ric McGinnis/The News

A group of irate Riverbank citizens confronted the city council at its regular meeting last week.

They came in seeking answers as to why there is so much confusion in the most recent bi-monthly billing they received for water, sewer and garbage services in the city.

In preparation for the public input portion of the council’s agenda, Mayor Richard O’Brien turned the agenda order around a little bit, moving the staff reports to the top, before the public input portion started.

That allowed city Finance Director and Interim City Manager Marisela Garcia to present a prepared statement that the city hoped would cover the issues the residents came to address. One of the things Garcia pointed out in her statement was the billing cycle that residents receive. The September billing, the most recent, covers June 29 through Aug. 29.

She also pointed out that several things have happened recently that have affected what the bill amounts represent.

“The city implemented new rates which increased the minimum amount charged for all services on a bi-monthly basis from $134.58 to $154.94,” she said.

That increase was voted on by the council back in October 2015. And, she added, rate increases will occur every July until 2019.

“In January, the city began its water meter replacement project. Many of the city’s water meters were 15 to 20 years old and, with time, had grown to be inefficient or were no longer capturing all of the water being used,” she explained. The ongoing project will replace all the residential and commercial water meters throughout the city and includes the installation of towers to collect daily meter readings from each meter.

“These meter readings are imported into our reading software prior to being imported into our billing software for processing. In the near future, residents will have the ability to view their own water usage via an online system or an app on their smartphone,” Garcia said.

So, it appears that these changes have had an impact on the clarity and accuracy of resident’s current water meter readings. Switching to new meters, with its attendant software implementation, might conflict with the new software in the finance department. The change in measuring system, from cubic feet to gallons, may have lost a little in the calculation. Comparing prior usage to the new measuring system requires multiplying the cubic feet by 7.48 to convert to gallons, according to Garcia, confusing for some.

“For those residents for which this is their first billing with their new water meter, the meter is capturing your water usage from the day of installation. For many, the meters were installed as early as April, therefore the water usage reflected and billed for is for April through August, which is a five-month period,” Garcia noted.

This is leading to more confusion. Residents have made complaints to the finance department, prior to the meeting, she said. In her opening statement at the council meeting, Garcia said the new meters were tested by the manufacturer when they left the plant, then some were spot checked by the Public Works Department prior to installation.

“There is currently no indication that the meters are not working to the level that we expect them to nor are there any indications that the meter readings are inaccurate. We will continue working with our contractor to ensure that this remains the case as we install water meters throughout the city,” she said.

The city is aware of the state requirements for water conservation, added Garcia.

“Throughout this process, the city has been closely monitoring its water production and usage in conformance with the drought regulations set by the state. When comparing the number of gallons our water wells pumped to the number of gallons that were billed, we noted that the gallons billed were less than the gallons pumped. This is consistent with the fact that there are water meters which are still in the process of being replaced and usage data is not being collected for their billings,” she explained. “It may also indicate that there are potential water leaks in the City’s water mains that have not yet been identified.”

She said the city is working ahead to clarify the billing information.

“In the upcoming weeks, the Finance Department will be performing an audit of all water consumption billings. This will provide the City with an opportunity to continue verifying the accuracy of our system. Based on this audit, the city may determine that adjustments are appropriate on accounts and will credit the accounts accordingly,” Garcia explained. “Those accounts that are adjusted will receive a follow-up letter from the Finance Department in October, prior to the processing of the next utility bill.”

Moving forward, she added, until the city completes the water meter upgrade project, beginning with November bills, all residents will show a minimum usage billing of $154.94 for the two month period of September and October.

“Once the project is completed citywide and all systems have been fully tested for accuracy, we will continue the water consumption billing in January,” she reported.

In addition to the complaints registered with the Finance Department, discourse on local social media has been hot and heavy, leading to an assumption that the council chambers last week might have been filled to standing room only. That turned out not to be the case, however. Only four residents spoke to the council regarding the confusion, including Scott McRitchie, who has been pointing out the difficulties for several meetings.

A topic of recurring concern, on social media, has been the fact that city staff has not been returning calls or helping to wade through the confusing and contradictory information. Garcia addressed that at the beginning of her statement: First, she thanked those who have called or e-mailed with questions regarding their water bill for their patience with the Finance Department. She said the city is dealing with a shortage in staff.

“Please rest assured that we are working diligently to answer your questions regarding your account. We strive to provide you with the best customer service possible and, although it may feel that we are not providing you with answers as quickly as you would like, we are working hard to ensure that we address your specific questions,” Garcia said.

She said the city is expecting to sort things out by the end of the year, and asked residents to be patient.