Water usage by Great Bend residents and concerns over how the city bills customers were on tap during the City Council meeting Monday night. Administrator Kendal Francis explained the procedure and assured all present that the city is dedicated to better relations with residents, and resolving issues swiftly and fairly.
The discussion was sparked in part by the concerns of a Great Bend water customer. Loralei Weller alleged her bills were too high and overage charges inaccurate, and that she received poor customer service from city employees at the Front Door facility when she lodged her complaint.
The city has also been taken to task via social media, Francis said.
“I’m confident in our in our staff’s ability,” Francis said. “But, we need a little bit of time.”
At the heart of the problem, Francis said, was reducing the estimation of water usage and continuing to improve interactions with the public.
“Honestly, it’s been an issue since I arrived here,” said Francis, who came to Great Bend in July 2018. “We’ve had a lot of issues early on with a high percentage of estimation.”
In other words, if a meter isn’t physically read, city officials look at previous months’ usage to estimate that bill.
Calculations are made every month to see what are percentage of the meters have been estimated, and they were extremely high, he said. “We took some steps in April of 2019 to help rectify that by adding a second meter reader.”
He said the city has 6,500 meters. This meant that one meter reader was having to read a little over 300 meters each day to be able to keep up with the pace needed to get bills out.
“If there were any delays because of equipment or weather, days off or vacations, we’d have a pretty high number of estimates which was creating some issues,” Francis said.
And then the city went through a period high turn over in the Public Works Water Division, which is responsible for the reading. The seventh meter reader in 14 months just started, Francis said.
“So, we went through a period in the last four months where we probably had some issues with more estimations,” he said. “It was kind of brought to the forefront on social media.”
He just wanted the council and residents to know there are protocols to make certain errors are caught. But, it may not be immediately.
“Depending on the situation, our system does flag unusual reads,” he said. If there’s a reading that’s extremely high or off in some way, a meter audit report will show that and service people will be dispatched to check the meter’s accuracy.
Besides out-and-out leaks, leaky toilets, bad reverse osmosis system filers or malfunctioning water heaters can suck water and cause bills to be high.
“We’re doing everything that we possibly can to make sure that we physically read every meter every month,” Francis said. And in fact, they are adjusting schedules now for meter readers to improve efficiency.
Rain days are another problem, he said. They can’t get the handheld computers used by the readers wet. So, again, sometimes schedules have to be tweaked so readers are out at different times.
There is also a learning curve as new staff gets acclimated to the routes.
There are also protocols in place where the meter readers will switch routes so that on the off chance somebody is routinely getting missed or routinely having an error, a fresh set of eyes may catch those and make accurate reads.
“I think we have two very good staff members now we’re but they’re going to need a little time to learn the routes and to be efficient at what they’re doing,” Francis said.
More than a water use issue
“It’s not just a one-part problem, it is a two-part problem,” Councilwoman Lindsey Krom-Craven said, referencing public concerns. “It’s the readings, but it’s also issues they’re having with the Front Door trying to resolve anything.”
She was talking about the city personnel at the Front Door who handle utility customers. “I think something needs to be looked at as far as whether they need some customer service training or a support system.”
Some have complained to her that the first response they get is that they have a water leak, and no other steps are taken to resolve the matter without it escalating. “That is frustrating,” Krom-Craven said.
“We did have a discussion with the supervisor about customer service,” Francis said. When a leak or an issue is reported, they are to make sure they don’t instantly jump in with a “you have a leak type of answer.”
There are also protocols are in place for this, he said. “We’ll be filling out a work order and we’re going to send someone out to physically recheck the meters. They’re going to look for indications of leaks.”
In addition, he said the city has provided customer service training.”Customer service is paramount to me. You know I want to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to provide ultimate customer service experience.”
He said he understands that people get upset when they are faced with high bill. There can be “sticker shock” if a customer is hit with big bill, be it for a leak or adjustments made for months of estimated usage.
If there is a complaint or error, they spend a lot of time reviewing billing records and can usually pinpoint the reason, he said.
Councilman Cory Urban suggested setting limits on the number of months a customer’s usage is estimated.
This is something the city’s billing system could accommodate and it will be studied, Francis said.
Getting the word out
As for Weller’s concerns, city officials apologized for any misunderstanding. But, since there was no record of her complaints, and that they were at least two years old, there wasn’t much the city could do.
The city has created informational cards that utilize graphics to illustrate the water and sewer billing process, Francis said. There are sample bills and explanations of billing codes.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that there are two components to billing,” he said. There is the monthly meter charge that is fixed (this is $10.12 for most residential customers) and the $2.54 charged for every 1,000 gallons of water used.
“This is the type of information we are trying to get out to the public,” Francis said. “If (customers) have concerns, they can call and we will work with them to understand why it is the way it is, or if there’s an error on our part, we’re going to own up to that as well.”
Francis noted that the city is looking at technology that might automatically read a meter, but with those come with a pretty hefty price tag, Francis said. “But there are some options.”
In the end, “we’re going to work harder on our end to make sure that we have people are actively reading there,” Francis said. “And we’re using every available minute of the day.”