Calgary: City auditors cite lack of confidence in water billing and water meters in wake of complaints

From the Calgary Herald

By Bill Kaufmann
September 10, 2017

In the wake of Calgarians’ complaints over drastic over-billing for water services, city auditors have expressed a lack of confidence in the process.

And a report to be delivered to the city’s auditing committee Thursday also states malfunctioning water meters and a lack of internal communication have contributed to the inaccuracies.

“In mid-2016, the Water Utility experienced a number of meter read failures due to faulty Encoder Receiver Transmitters (ERTs) on water meters,” states the Sept. 5 report that covers Jan. 1, 2016, to May 30, 2017.

“The Water Utility identified accounts where estimated reads continued for ‘a number of months’ and were not identified, resulting in large retrospective customer bills.”

A number of Enmax customers have complained about monthly water and wastewater bills running into the thousands of dollars when a normal monthly invoice would be around $100.

Some say they were away from home during those unexpectedly high billings and insisted they’ve had no major leaks or wastage in their water use.

While the city audit report expresses confidence that billing is taking place and at a proper annual rate, there’s “limited assurance over the completeness and accuracy of individual customer billing and accounts.”

Without proper reporting, says the report, it’s not clear whether the city or its arm’s-length utility Enmax are to blame for the billing lags, but it’s clear they “can create delay in receipt of revenue, unexpected financial burden on customers, and reputational risk to the city.”

Ward 4 Coun. Sean Chu said he’s not surprised by the report, adding he’s had concerns over what he calls “smart meters” that have been relatively recently installed in many homes.

“Everything mechanical or digital can have problems, even the space shuttle,” said Chu.

“There’s always error, nothing’s guaranteed and you have to recognize it — we have to be honest with ourselves.”

Late last month, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said those stuck with outrageous water bills will be reimbursed and charged an average monthly billing instead.

He also said the city will investigate the cause of the over-charging and the accuracy of water meters.

A notice of motion being brought by Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart in the upcoming council meeting Monday is pushing for those measures and others, including determining if all water entering some Calgarians’ homes is being improperly billed as wastewater — effectively a double-charge.

Chu, a member of the audit committee, said he’s in favour of all those moves.

“We should take the average of people’s usage and charge only that,” he said. “Nobody’s saying they should get free water.”

Though he hadn’t read it fully, committee member Coun. Richard Pootmans said the audit report’s recommendation that meter issues be tracked and reporting improved are consistent with Colley-Urquhart’s notice of motion.

“Between the audit report and Colley-Urquhart’s notice of motion, most of the issues related to the audit report will be addressed,” he said.

“In a way, this is a process that’s working, problems are being addressed.”

Pootmans, who’s not running for re-election this fall, said he’s confident the next council and its committees will solve the over-billing problems to Calgarians’ satisfaction.

“If there are some gaps that need to be addressed, let’s address them,” he said.

In a written statement, Enmax spokeswoman Gina Sutherland said the audit is one targeting City of Calgary processes and that it “isn’t related to the recent customer inquiries involving unexpected high consumption situations.”

She reiterated the company is engaged in an independent review of its systems.

“We have already committed to the city water utility that we will fully support them in their implementation of any process improvements that may be identified in the audit,” added Sutherland.

On Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

City auditors cite lack of confidence in water billing, meters in wake of complaints

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