While Ivory Charley, 61, of Elyria has not paid a $388.93 bill, he has paid each subsequent bill in full since, bills shown here that range from $87.59 to $122.36.
LISA ROBERSON / CHRONICLE Enlarge
ELYRIA — An Elyria man’s dispute with the city’s Utilities Department about a triple-digit bill highlights the system of using estimated bills, a practice that can lead to bills that are quadruple the monthly bills when a meter is manually read for accuracy.
City officials contend estimated bills will disappear with the installation of new water meters, which will begin next month for residential customers.
That won’t solve the problem 61-year-old Ivory Charley said he has with a March bill he received for $388.93. In a city where 22 percent of residents live below the poverty line, a bill like that can throw a household budget out of whack quickly, which is exactly how Charley said he feels knowing the bill is more than the $325 a month he pays in rent.
The March bill came after 14 prior months of consecutive estimated bills for his water and sewer usage at the one-bedroom Riverside Homes residence he shares with his wife, Euvenia Charley, 71.
For more than a year, the city’s Utilities Department pumped out a bill for Charley that he thought totaled his water, sewer, and sewer debt and trash charges for the prior month. According to copies of bills and payment receipts Charley provide to The Chronicle-Telegram, the Elyria man paid $82.58 on Feb. 2, 2017. On Feb. 10 of this year, he paid $85.98. Each bill in between was exactly $83.84.
He paid each in full.
And then came the March bill — $388.93.
He said he immediately went to the city to dispute the charge, but was unsuccessful in getting it resolved. While Charley has not paid the $388.93 March bill, he has paid each subsequent bill in full since, bills that range from $87.59 to $122.36.
The bills are substantially higher than comparable bills from other homes in the area.
Two neighbors pay $64.41 a month for utility services, according to copies of the bills he collected from neighbors.
“I don’t understand it. Its not like we are excessively using water,” Charley said.
On July 10, Charley received a letter from Deborah Conner, the department’s senior manager, reiterating the city’s stance that the large bill is accurate and the result of reading his home’s meter instead of estimating usage.
“After review of your account; it has been determined that actual read on 02/12/2018 is accurate and reflects water that did run through your meter,” Conner wrote. “The prior 14 months were estimates and were estimated approximately 2 to 3 (hundred cubic feet) lower than actual. We changed out your meter on 04/09/2018 and have been receiving actual reads forward.”
Conner offered Charley a payment plan of an additional $97 per month for the next four months to get his bill current. Conner also informed Charley of the city’s Dispute Resolution Board, which meets monthly and awards bill credits to customers who can prove exigent circumstances
“This is the second time they have pulled this large money game and each time they change the meter, but I’m back again with the same problem,” Charley said.
Safety Service Director Mary Siwierka said Monday that Charley’s situation is indicative of why the city is installing new water meters across the city.
“One of the reasons why we are doing this new program is because we are finding more and more dead meters,” she said.
The new meters will in most cases replace meters dating back to 1997, which is the last time the city underwent a citywide water meter replacement project, Siwierka said.
“The water meters we use have outlived their useful life,” she said.
Cincinnati-based NECO Water is the contractor working to replace the meters in a $6 million project that started with commercial meters for heavy users. The project will take between 18 months and two years to convert more than 22,000 commercial and residential meters to new state-of-the-art meters, Ray Schwartz, NECO sales manager, said in a February presentation to City Council.
The meters use radio-based technology that sends information to receivers placed around the city — most likely atop the city’s water towers — and removes the need to have water meters physically read.
New meters should alleviate a huge problem Elyria has with losing water and revenue.
The city’s 2013 performance audit said Elyria water loss was significant. In 2011, which was the year the report examined, the city billed nearly $9.1 million to customers for water services and collected roughly $8.4 million for a collection rate of 93.7 percent. That same year, Elyria’s water pumping plant pumped 3.81 billion gallons of water, but the city reportedly billed customers for 2.826 billion gallons for a water loss percentage of 25.8 percent.
The industry standard is about 15 percent for systems of Elyria’s age, the audit said.
In advance of the new meters, Siwierka said the city identified months ago that it had a problem with estimated bills.
“Since December, we have been running a program where each time we do a billing cycle, it flags any account that has been estimated for three consecutive months,” she said. “We send a notice out to the home and ask to inspect the meter. We get about 50 percent of the households to respond.”
Elyria’s meter readers — the city has one full-time meter reader and two full-time meter reader/service technicians who drive around the city in five zoned areas to collect monthly readings from customers.
The reading is supposed to digitally transmit to the reader in the field. A misread or no reading is flagged when the reader returns to the office. This will trigger an estimated bill. In some cases, that can lead to future catch-up bills if it is determined later through an actual reading that more water was used than estimated.
“We don’t like to do make-up bills and when we do make-up bills, we work with the customer and come up with a payment plan,” Siwierka said.
Conner said Elyria breaks its service area into five zones that each have between 4,000 and 5,000 accounts. About 1 percent to 2 percent of the accounts are estimated each month.
Conner said in the last billing cycle, 39 notices went out to accountholders regarding billing concerns.
“When all the meters are changed out, we will hopefully get to the point where all the bills go out on the same day and all are due on the same day,” Siwierka said. “Now bills are read and computed at different times of the month.”
Charley said he doesn’t care when his bill arrives, he just wants an accurate bill.
“It’s obvious from my history I will pay, but $388.93 is ridiculous,” he said.