The Sewerage & Water Board has hired a private contractor to bolster the ranks of its meter reading staff and make recommendations on routes and other policies at about three times the hourly rate it pays its own employees.
The contract with Olameter comes as the number of bills that must be estimated because meter readers cannot reach them has ballooned during the coronavirus pandemic, exacerbating problems with overcharges that have long plagued the utility.
In addition to the contract, S&WB officials also announced on Wednesday they will be trying to address the new increases in billing problems by changing the formula used to produce estimated bills and working to bring on more in-house staff.
The S&WB is currently dealing with a backlog of unread meters and only about 42% of its 136,000 customers had their bills read in July, leaving the rest with estimated bills. The public utility has blamed the surge in unread meters on high turnover and low staffing levels exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The large number of customers now receiving estimated bills has, in turn, been blamed for a surge in overcharges and disputed bills.
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Olameter’s contract, which would also include advising the S&WB on route changes and other potential efficiencies, would bring on 20 more meter readers, more than doubling the staff of 14 now working for the utility, said Courtney Barnes, a spokesperson for the S&WB. An additional 19 meter readers are wrapping up training after being hired during a push for more staff earlier this year, Barnes said.
The contract calls for Olameter to be paid $37.97 per hour for each of the 20 workers being provided under the contract, with an expenditure cap of $500,000 over three months. S&WB meter readers are paid $13 an hour, though Barnes noted the utility has been working to get the city’s Civil Service Commission to raise that amount.
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It was not immediately clear how much the Olameter workers would be paid and how much of the contract will go to the company.
The current goal is to read 80,000 meters each month, which would result in 80% of customers getting actual reads by November, Barnes said.
“We’re hoping not only to reduce the backlog from estimates we’ve gained over the last few months but also improve our knowledge” about how to efficiently read meters, Executive Director Ghassan Korban said at a S&WB meeting Wednesday.
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Korban said the contract could be extended if it proves to be beneficial.
Estimated bills, which are sent out when a meter reader cannot check an address’s actual energy usage, have long been a problem for the S&WB.
Overcharges exploded at the utility after it installed a new billing system in late 2016, with many of the problems blamed on issues with how it calculated its estimates. That eventually prompted a change to a formula that charged customers a flat rate on estimated bills.
But that changed again in September, when the utility switched back to calculating its estimates based on a customers’ prior four bills. But the bills used in the estimates could have been estimates themselves, causing further problems.
Complaints spiked again before falling to their lowest levels in years by March, when 1,025 customers challenged the amount the utility said they owe, according to S&WB documents. But those numbers surged again in June and July, with nearly 3,700 challenges over those two months.
Under a new policy announced on Wednesday, the S&WB will tweak that system. Estimates will now be based on the average daily usage recorded during the two most recent instances a meter was actually read in the previous 10 months. If a customer doesn’t have any actual readings in that time span, the S&WB will default to an estimate of 170 gallons of water per day.