Durham County

Durham halts back billing customers for unpaid water use, says no one will be cut off

Durham water customers hit with hefty adjustments on bills

Durham water customers say they’re being hit for water bills they’ve already paid, some going back more than a year. The bills include adjustment of hundreds of dollars for underestimated water usage.
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Durham water customers say they’re being hit for water bills they’ve already paid, some going back more than a year. The bills include adjustment of hundreds of dollars for underestimated water usage.

City officials who recently sent water bills of $500 and more to residents say they still don’t know how much total money is owed but that no one unable to pay will lose service.

In a letter posted on the city’s website Thursday, Durham’s Water Management Department says more than 3,000 customers have had their bills based on their estimated water use, including nearly a third that have gone over a year without an actual meter reading.

The letter was posted in conjunction with a presentation to the City Council by Water Department Director Don Greeley.

Accounts for customers who have been back-billed have been flagged so that service will not be discontinued, the letter says.

“We also understand that for some customers, the amount of the back-bill creates a financial hardship,” the letter says. “That is one of several reasons that we are placing back-billing on hold until further notice as we review and update all the processes and protocols for equity and accuracy.”

Greeley said a total dollar amount for the back-billed accounts has not yet been determined because of the various rates that customers — both residential and commercial — pay. That analysis is expected soon and will be given to the council, he said.

Councilman Charlie Reece asked whether customers who paid their bills on time would still have to pay the adjustment charges.

Greeley said the bills still were being sorted out but the charges resulting from actual meter readings likely would have to be paid.

Councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton suggested the Water Department find a way to make the “payment terms as friendly and as comfortable as possible” for customers.

Greeley said some people have requested payment plans and others already have satisfied their adjusted balances.

Meter accuracy did not cause this problem, he said. It was a matter of obtaining the usage date from the meter. Some causes for not getting the meter readings include dead batteries or poor signal strength in the transmitter, he said. Changing the batteries or adding a larger antenna often would correct the problem, he said.

“At the heart of this current issue is a failure to diagnose and repair/replace meters in a timely manner,” the letter says. “We also acknowledge that by continuing the practice of allowing approximately 3,000 meters to be estimated well beyond the accepted practice of two-to-three months was problematic and should not have occurred.”

The Water Department estimated about 3.2% of customers have been back-billed. About 1,200 customers had their water usage estimated for up to six months, while about another 900 each had estimates for seven to 12 months and more than 12 months.

The Water Department started addressing the back-log in February, the letter says. When more staff were added in June, “several missteps in the protocol occurred,” the letter says.

The city’s service area is divided into 16 districts for meter reading, with four districts being read each week, according to the Water Department. Readings are electronically collected from automated meters. If issues arise with the meter reading, an estimated reading is used to calculate the bill so that it is processed in with the rest of the district, the letter says.

The number of customers having their bills estimated grew faster than expected, Greeley said.

The practice has been to estimate no longer than three months, according to the letter. A new policy reduces that number to two months.

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.