The city of Archer began installing touch read water meters Monday to help reduce complaints about high water bills.
After hearing complaints from residents about over-billing, the city began looking into installing the meters. Al Grieshaber, city manager, said the system will help save manpower and become more efficient and effective, especially by eliminating three possibilities for human error during their traditional recording process: when the assistant reads the meter, transposes the reading into the meter book and when the data entry clerk inputs the figure into the database.
Residential customers will make the switch from analog water meters to the digital meters first, and then the city will begin working on their commercial customers, Grieshaber said.
The new electronic system will allow a public works assistant to touch a wand to the top of the connection on the water meter, transferring the reading onto a hand-held device. He or she would then bring the device into the office and place it on a cradle. From there, the reading will automatically load onto the software and generate the bill.
“As we know, all humans make mistakes,” Grieshaber said. “Heck, when I read some of those meter readings, I don’t know whether it’s a six or an eight, and I have to really stare at it. Sometimes I get a magnifying glass.”
Water bill discrepancies
Debbie Wynn has been living at her current residence on SW 137th Ave. in Archer for 25 years.
The 50-year-old said she had issues with her water bill increasing in 2011. With the help of Laurie Costello, a former Archer mayor, she later found the increase was a result of added zeros on her meter reading.
Wynn worked out a deal with city employees to pay off her water bill through community service before she served a year in jail for an unrelated grand theft charge in 2010. She said her husband continued to pay the water bills while she was incarcerated, but she still had a $466 water bill to work off.
When Wynn was released in 2011, she began her community service work, which she said she believed would count toward paying off her water bill.
During a board of code enforcement meeting, she learned that all the work she completed was illegal because she could not be employed by the city due to her felony status.
“I did it to keep my water on, but I didn’t realize that what I was doing was illegal,” she said.
This is when she contacted Joseph Little, a lawyer and law professor at the University of Florida, to assist her in her suit against the city.
Little said based on the information he was given, the city was inappropriately recording the water usage at Wynn’s home and charged her with using more water than what was actually used.
The city was sending Wynn bills she couldn’t afford, and the city turned her water off in March without proper notice, he said.
Wynn had no running water in her home for about six months. She said she would fill up water jugs at her sister-in-law’s house and take them back to her home to use for dishes, showers and the toilet.
“It’s hard to be without water because you’ve got to have water for just about everything,” she said.
Little said it took a while to resolve the issue, but Wynn received a $1,500 settlement from the city in December 2012.
Since the settlement, Wynn developed a ritual of checking her water meter daily and writing down the numbers. She said her bill is now about $32 a month.
With the new meters being installed, Wynn said she doesn’t believe in digital. She said she thinks the city will end up with even more problems.
Wynn is not alone having trouble paying water bills.
Jeffery Miller, 61, has lived in Archer for more than 30 years and has never experienced any issues in the past with the city until last year.
His water bill started increasing in January 2012 from about $200 to $700 that same summer when he would normally pay around $35. Eventually, Miller couldn’t keep up with payments and his water was cut off.
He and his family lived in their home without running water for about a year, Miller said. He was able to get water from his friends and also purchased gallons of water from Save-A-Lot.
“It was bad,” he said. “Just (putting) it straightforward. It was hell.”
Miller said Costello reached out to him once she heard what he was going through. She helped him discover that he had added zeros to his water meter reading for about three to four months, which had caused the bills to increase.
This year, he received a $410.88 credit on his water bill.
Now that Miller and his family have running water, he said he still wants an apology from city officials.
“It makes you look different at your city leaders,” he said. “I always was brought up if you did wrong, be a man or be a woman and apologize, but like I said, we never got that.”
City Manager Grieshaber said he thinks the water was legitimately used even though he discovered that Miller’s bill was miscalculated. He said the Millers contended that extra zeros were being added to the bill, but he said he’s not confident it’s true.
“I’m sorry it happened, but it happened, so let’s correct it,” Grieshaber said. “Let’s move on.”
“Meter reader has never been wrong”
Robert “Bob” Brown, 81, has lived in Archer for seven years. He found several errors in his water bills during October 2012 through January 2013.
Brown said he had discrepancies in his bill calculations that were caused by someone not subtracting the correct month’s recording, leaving numbers out of the water meter reading and in an adjustment made on his bill by the city.
Brown had the same numbers recorded for the present and previous month in his October and November bills. Each bill had the same reading and usage numbers, but each month had a different calculation for his payment.
Grieshaber said he didn’t check the accuracy of the other resident’s bills after discovering several miscalculations in Brown’s bill. He said he looks at each individual bill on a case-by-case basis. The city looks into each account if the computer flags the water meter reading as high, he said.
The city’s database would not allow Grieshaber to go in and make the corrections to Brown’s water bill, he said. Brown’s first account ended up being discarded and the city opened a new one to correct the situation.
Brown said everything worked out so there was no penalty to him. He wasn’t charged for the actual amount of water he used, which was higher than what the bill stated, because of the errors.
He said he never would have been able to figure out the miscalculations on his bill if it wasn’t for Costello and Jocelyn Garcia, a previous public works employee, who mentioned to him that the city had made errors on other resident’s bills.
Because of this, he wrote a letter to Grieshaber and sat down with him on two or three different occasions.
“The problem is to get the city to admit they made an error,” Brown said. “Now in my case they did because I actually went in and showed them where the errors were made. Other people were not able to do that.”
He said he’s heard the excuse of the meters being read wrong as the reason for the discrepancies in the bills, which he said he doesn’t think is a reasonable explanation.
There can be seven digits in the meter reading. He pointed out that there’s only five spaces to put those numbers in. He said every month the person who does the meter readings may have to put two digits in one space. Brown suggested the city create a new form to record the numbers in.
“In all of the cases I’ve looked at … the meter reader has never been wrong,” he said.
A “betterment of the community”
Frank Ogborn, the mayor of Archer, said the new meters will help avoid the errors some residents have had. He said it’s the city’s job to be fiscally responsible to the citizens and reduce any opportunities for error or inconvenience.
“There’s been some problems with the meters in the past that I’m not going to go into, but we’re going to try eliminate all those mistakes by updating this,” he said.
Ogborn added that the project could have been completed in the past and would have cost $50,000 instead of the current price tag of $60,000. He said he doesn’t know why it wasn’t done earlier.
“We’re not kicking the can down the road like past commissions did,” he said. “We’re addressing the problem.”
Each meter will cost $105 for the 490 commercial and residential connections, Grieshaber said, which adds up to $51,450. The overall cost will be more than $60,000, including the software and touch read capability. The funding for the meters came from the city’s budget.
John Mayberry, 53, assistant city manager, said these new meters have a 20-year warranty compared to the analog meters.
Grieshaber said the analog meters with moving parts should be replaced on a five-year-replacement schedule. Since he’s been with the city, he said, there hasn’t been a plan for meter replacements because the employees knew they were going to eventually switch to touch read meters.
When a water meter is old, more water flows than gets recorded, Grieshaber said.
Customers could see an increase in their water bills because the meters will be new and potentially more accurate, city officials said.
Mayberry said residents often question the amount of water they use compared to how much they are being billed for. Unless they go out every day and look at the meter, the amount of water they used becomes vague after a month, he said.
The touch read meters will allow the city to produce reports on each resident’s usage data. Mayberry said the city can give residents a collection of their usage per hour for a number of days.
“In my mind, confidence is the biggest,” Mayberry said. “We want folks out here to have confidence that they’re being billed correctly for what they’re using.”
Donna Lee has lived in Archer since 1984 and hasn’t had any issues with her water bill increasing in the past except when she first moved into her home and a pipe broke.
The 61-year-old said she heard the city mention the new meters but wasn’t aware the city made the decision to install them.
“It’s probably going to be a little better because sometimes I know the sand or water will get in there,” she said, “and it’s hard to read the meters right now.”
Jerry Beran, 65, moved to Archer from Gainesville in March. He said he hasn’t had any issues with his water since moving in.
Beran normally pays about $38 to $40 a month for his water bill.
“I guess it’s going to be an improvement and it’ll be for the betterment of the community,” he said, “and I look forward to that.”