NEW MEXICO-Problems with city’s new ‘smart’ water meters generate numerous written complaints

Posted: Monday, December 28, 2015 10:45 pm | Updated: 6:53 am, Tue Dec 29, 2015.

Stanley Gairey couldn’t understand how he had gone through 2,700 gallons of water at his home in one day.

But his $400 water bill said he had.

“He claimed he was on hold with the Water Div. at the same time he was speaking to me and has been on hold for over 15 minutes,” Therese Prada of the city’s Office of Constituent Services wrote in a Nov. 16 email to Diana Catanach, the utility billing director. “He also mentioned that this happened right after the new meter was installed (he was very unhappy).”

Gairey’s complaint is among more than two dozen logged in writing against the city’s Utility Billing Division in the last six months, about the same time the city started to replace defective meters with a new “smart” meter-reading system.

The New Mexican first reported a spike in complaints over water bills last month, most of which stemmed from the installation of new water meters. But the complaint documents, including one laced with profanity, illustrate a deep level of frustration felt by utility customers over a range of issues beyond billing errors, including unusually long wait times over the phone, failures to notify customers about service cutoffs and the City Council’s practice of siphoning money from water ratepayers in recent years to shore up the general fund.

“The water folks did a terrible job regarding notification of homeowners about replacing water meters with ‘smart’ meters. Our water went off in the middle of the afternoon, and I had no idea whether it was a problem in our house or from the street,” Craig Campbell wrote in an email to City Councilor Joseph Maestas, who told Campbell he was also “disappointed” in the lack of notification.

“Secondly,” Campbell added, “I am in the camp that believes the Water Department should have been required to return at least 50 percent of the huge overcharge rather than assign it to other City functions. Probably too late to affect that situation, but there should have been clear evidence of the overcharge LONG ago.”

Gairey, who got a $400 water bill, echoed a similar sentiment, saying in a telephone interview that he has no faith in the people running the Water Division.

“I just don’t trust the people running that damn place,” he said. “The other thing that really frosts my [obsenity] is that they’re overcharging the hell for water and then they’re taking it to run other city divisions. … The city, under David Coss, he was a bleeding freaking heart, they’ve should’ve gotten rid of the damn managers who couldn’t maintain their damn budgets and they would’ve nipped the problem in the bud.”

Gairey said he had “a situation” years ago in which his water meter wasn’t working properly despite denials from the Water Division. At his insistence, the water meter was changed, and “everything was fine,” he said.

“I can go on and on and on, but when I start talking about it, I get really pissed off because it’s a bureaucratic freaking nightmare,” he said.

Like Gairey, other water customers also complained about wait times on the phone.

“I’m a lifelong Santa Fe resident and this … is ridiculous,” Thomas Griego wrote in a profanity-laced email Nov. 18. “Someone in this city department better learn a thing or two about customer service, and answer the [obscenity] phone in a decent amount of time.”

Amanda Vigil, the customer service representative who received Griego’s email, forwarded it to Catanach.

“I believe this needs to be taken care of at your level,” she wrote.

Last month, Nick Schiavo, the city’s public utilities director, said the Water Division was dealing with a spike in complaints, many of which were tied to the installation of the new water meters. The influx of complaints, plus a staffing shortage, created longer wait times on the phone, a problem that persists.

Schiavo, who on Monday referred questions about the complaints to Catanach, said last month that the new Badger Meter Inc. devices are much more accurate than the old meters, giving a true reading of customers’ water usage. In cases in which customers’ bills are much higher than normal, Schiavo said, the old and defective Firefly data-transmitting devices have been “underreading for months.” After the new meters are installed, the system “is trying to true up that read,” he said.

That’s what happened in Gairey’s case, Catanach said in an interview.

When his meter was exchanged Oct. 6, the new meter did a “catch-up read,” she said.

“He was billed for 16,900 gallons,” she said, adding that the city adjusted his bill based on last year’s rate.

“It was underreading for a few months, so we went back and did an adjustment based on last year’s read,” she said.

Gairey didn’t believe his bill was accurate even after it dropped to about $187, but he paid it anyway.

“I still think that was probably $100 too high, but I was tired of arguing,” he said.

The complaints against the Utility Billing Division, obtained by The New Mexican under an open-records request, raise a host of concerns from various people, including City Council candidate Marie Campos, who said in May that her water bill had doubled. In an email to Schiavo, Campos said her attempts to the get the problem resolved at the Water Division offices were fruitless.

“There must be an error in the meters or when the company was working on Maez Rd created a problem,” Campos wrote. “I do not own a hot tub, swimming pool or have a major leak. I don’t water my lawn, there are not more household members or any reason for my water bill to double.”

Campos also complained about lack of notification, saying the water was turned off and on “without warning,” as well as problems with the water once it had been turned back on.

“A number of people in our neighborhood have broken out in rashes, including myself,” she wrote.

Schiavo forwarded Campos’ complaint to Catanach, who promised to send field techs to her home “to get a read as well as checking for consumption that could detect a leak.”

Two days later, Campos contacted Catanach again.

“I have not heard back from you, and just found a cut-off notice posted on my fence,” Campos wrote May 14.

On July 21, Campos received another cut-off notice, according to city emails.

Catanach apologized for the delay, writing that she thought the issue had been resolved.

“I am going to halt disconnect proceedings right now, and I am going to allow an adjust to the lower tier of consumption for the January and February 2015 bills and I will remove the finance charges that have occurred,” she wrote.

Some complaints were resolved right away.

After Frans Trouw received a bill six times higher than normal after his water meter was replaced, he asked the city to investigate “this rather large discrepancy.”

“The bill is for my residence, and it is hard for me to see how my wife and I … could possible [sic] have used 31,500 gallons in one month, which is about 40 gallons an hour,” he wrote.

In an interview, Trouw said the Water Division responded “right away.”

“They explained to me that the meter had been not reporting properly for quite a while. So, we looked back through our records and it all made sense,” he said. “It was just unfortunate that it took them a while to fix it, that’s all.”

Catanach said about half the complaints logged against the Water Division were valid. But many of the customers who complained that their bills were too high were responsible.

“The reason their bill is so high is just because of nonpayment,” she said. “They just haven’t even paid the bill for the last three or four months.”

Catanach said the Water Division saw a bump in complaints following newspaper reports about billing and other issues.

“All of a sudden, we got everybody in here,” she said.

The complaints have since tapered down.

Catanach asked customers to be “patient and understanding.”

“I hate to put it this way, but a lot of times people will come in yelling and screaming at staff who are really trying to help them,” she said. “If they could just be patient with us, we certainly are willing to help reach resolution. I’d say 90 percent of our customers, if not more, leave happy.”

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