New water reading system to provide residents more consistent bills

By: Joshua Gordon | Woodward Talk | Published May 15, 2013

FERNDALE — Ferndale residents should expect more consistent water bills in the coming months, with a new Elster reading system and New World Systems billing system in place for 98 percent of residents and payment plans available for those who are trying to catch up on past-due bills.

A recent water and sewer audit from Abraham & Gaffney showed Ferndale had one of the highest combined water and sewer rates in Oakland County. Residential water bills in particular had been a cause for concern, with one-third of Ferndale’s water customers delinquent in paying their bills.

Jaynmarie Hubanks, assistant city manager and finance director, and Public Works Director Loyd Cureton presented a status report on the water bills to the City Council during the April 29 meeting.

An upgraded Elster reading system was put in place in 2010, but faulty transmitters weren’t sending water usage readings to the DPW office, resulting in hundreds of estimated bills during 2012. When an upgraded Elster system was installed in November, the readings were received and “catch-up” bills were sent out to make up for the difference, either negative or positive, of the estimated bills.

“What we saw with this (older) Elster system was we started getting a couple hundred no reads and then ended up getting a couple more in a billing cycle,” Hubanks said. “At worst, we had 1,000 no reads and in a billing cycle of about 3,400 accounts, that is almost a third, which is pretty dramatic.”

Meters inside residential homes, usually in the basement, recorded the water usage every hour and sent the data to the transmitters. While the meters were working correctly, the faulty transmitters required DPW and Elster personnel to go house to house to receive readings off as many meters as possible.

“Our system can estimate bills on the past few billing cycles, but when we got our new system up, we got a reconciliation with catch up, where customers were charged too much or not enough,” Cureton said. “It is not a big problem if there is an estimated read occasionally on an account; it is only a problem when it is repeated and you have three or four in a row.

“In a system with 9,655 accounts, we may have 40 or 50 estimated bills on a cycle because of vacant home or a wire being cut during house repairs. But to have hundreds or thousands, it is absolutely not OK.”

Besides industrial high users, water bills are sent out every quarter. If customers were charged low on their bill or even just the service charge, they could see bills upwards of $1,000 on a quarterly bill that should normally be around $300.

Hubanks said the city’s finance department has worked with residents who struggled to pay big bills all at once, letting them make monthly payments over a six-month period, or even longer in some cases. When customers notify the finance staff they are current on their bills, any penalties accrued during the delinquent time will be removed.

“It is human nature to live paycheck to paycheck, and we all want bills that are only what we owe, no more and no less, only paying for what we use,” Hubanks said. “It is also important to do financial analysis on trends because what we see in the past dictates what will happen in the future. We need to guess what the future costs are so we can set rates for future years and make enough money to pay our bills and continue to provide service.”

Not only has the new Elster reading system allowed the finance department to catch up on delinquent bills and the DPW to receive accurate readings, it will also make things much easier moving forward. The new system allows DPW personnel to look at each individual account and answer questions customers may have about their bill or usage.

The new system also allows the DPW to track water leaks with water usage per hour being tracked on all accounts.

“If we see 24 hours of water flow on an account and it is not a manufacturing company or apartment complex, there is a problem,” Cureton said.  “Sometimes, you will have a vacant house with a busted water pipe or a house with a toilet running all the time. Anytime somebody calls in, we can look up their account and it shows all the flows, and we can tell if there has been a continuous flow.”

While water customers will be happy to have more consistent bills, the DPW and city will also be saving money with the new system. Not having to have collectors go out and take three weeks to get all the houses in a billing cycle, the DPW is saving a couple hundred thousand dollars, Cureton said.

“We don’t have a person walking house to house and plugging in to get the reads. The man hours alone translates in savings,” he said. “The ultimate thing we are trying to do is prevent the wasting of water and have a well-managed system so we can keep our rates as low as possible.”