Columbia's water dept. logged 50,000 customer billing complaints over 5 years

Columbia's water dept. logged 50,000 customer billing complaints over 5 years

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Eight months after an investigation into the City of Columbia's water department began, officials released several documents shedding light on customer billing complaints.

Officials have also released an update on a complete overhaul of the Department of Utilities and Engineering that was announced in February.  At that time, we told you about a battle with the city for public records. Several months later, those records were released, shedding a light on problems the city initially denied were happening.

A customer complaint log shared by the city shows close to 50,000 customer billing complaints over the last five years. In addition, customer care employees logged another 7,700 calls related to discolored water and 4,800 calls for pressure checks.

While the city declined our most recent requests for an interview, those records we received through a Freedom of Information Act request show some positive changes since our investigation began.

After some customers told us they were concerned their meters weren't being checked, the city initiated a "skip report" to figure out how many meters weren't being read and why. The first report, released in December, shows nearly 4,000 meters went unread that month. The top reasons included meter readers being unable to locate the meter, a meter that was covered or sitting in water. Since the report was created, however, the number of meters that go unread has nearly been slashed in half. In March, just over 2,000 meters went unread -- 1.46 percent of the city's total inventory. City officials say that's well within accepted industry standards -- that's 2 percent -- that come from the American Water Works Association.

Other changes the city’s announced since our reporting began include restructuring the department, posting a job for a new assistant city manager position, and holding water drop-in meetings for customers with billing concerns.

The city says they're continuing to seek someone with a "unique skill set" to fill that still-vacant assistant city manager position that would help oversee the water department.

"While it is important to have the right person in the assistant city manager position in the long term, we are fortunate to have in-house expertise in
our Director of Engineering, Director of Utility Operations, Customer Care Administrator, and their staff. They will continue to move us forward in improving our customer service, utility operations, and long-term capital planning so that our new assistant city manager can enter an organizational structure primed and ready for strategic leadership," city officials said in a statement.

On top of a new position, the city is continuing reorganization efforts to better handle complex billing issues within the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

The city is also looking to replace its 140,000+ meters with advanced metering infrastructure that transmit real-time usage to the city. Leaders who’ve supported the project say it will increase transparency between the water department and its customers. They hope it will cut back on the nearly 10,000 customers complaints they receive each year. 

A feasibility study for the upgrade has been completed. The city will then begin a phased installation that's expected to take three to five years.
Despite the work to make changes within the department, we continue to receive complaints from City of Columbia water customers who say their bills spike unexpectedly.

In response, the city says it can assist in two ways. It will either offer a courtesy reduction for one high bill by 50 percent if a cause can't be identified. It can also offer a plumbing repair reduction by 50 percent of the amount over a customer's average past use. Either way, the city will only offer customers one reduction a year. For customers struggling with a high bill, the city released the following advice:

  • Check your toilets for leaks. Toilet leaks are one of the most common leaks we see and can be as inexpensive to fix as installing a new toilet flapper (cost to fix: around $5). The City of Columbia has dye indicator tablets that help people test for toilet leaks. To use, drop a tablet in the tank and leave it to sit at least ten minutes. If color shows up in the bowl and nobody has used the toilet, you have a leak. We also suggest doing this test overnight. Look for the dye indicator tablets at the giveaway stations in the Washington Square and Eau Claire bill-pay centers.
  • Check your water heater for leaks. Look for rings of dampness around your water heater or keep a bucket under your pressure relief valve.
  • Know where your leak indicator is. If everything is turned off in your house and the leak indicator is turning, there is a good chance you have a plumbing problem.
  • Know how much water you use each day. Write down your meter reading at the same time every day, and you should have a good gauge of how much water your household uses. If this number starts going up, you may have a problem.
  • Know if you are using water overnight. Most of us should not be using water overnight. Check your meter reading at night after everyone has finished using water for the day. Then, check it again before anyone starts getting ready in the morning and using water. If the number has changed, something in your house is using water. Unless you have an irrigation timer set to go off at night or you know of some other reason your house should be using water, there is a good chance you have a problem. You may not realize it, but toilet leaks tend to happen more often at night!
  • If you irrigate, know how much your system uses. At the beginning of the watering season, run your system for ten minutes, and use your meter to see how much water it uses. Test it again at least once a month and again before you winterize the system.
  • If the usage increases during any of the 10-minute tests, you may have a broken sprinkler head, a loose fitting, or a hole somewhere. Irrigation leaks can be hard to find because they generally happen while the system is on, and the ground is already wet.
  • Also, unless the problem is with the system cut-off valve, you will not see it at the leak detector – since it’s only leaking when water is supposed to be passing through the meter.
  • If you irrigate using a timer, know how the timer works. Make sure the timer is set to water at the correct time for the correct duration. You may also want to check the timer after power disruptions to make sure it is still set correctly.

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