BWS chief promises changes to flawed billing system

BWS chief promises changes to flawed billing system
Published: Oct. 29, 2013 at 10:19 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 30, 2013 at 1:50 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Problems created by the Board of Water Supply's estimated billing system came under scrutiny on Tuesday by a Honolulu City Council committee. After getting grilled by members, the agency's chief vowed to make changes to help prevent inaccurate estimates.

Kalihi resident Virgie Jaralba and her elderly parents were stunned by their latest combined water and sewer bills.

"We've been getting bills for like $200 that's the most, and about October 19, when we got the first bill it was like $5,000," said Jaralba.

After an actual meter reading and recalculations, they now owe a total of $7,410.81 due to an undetected leak.

"For the past two weeks, I've been so worried I cannot even eat," said Jaralba.

A BWS official said the agency is working with the Jaralba's family to determine an adjustment to their bill after sending a water service investigator to the house to look into the recent high water usage.

A city council committee considered a resolution to place the following question on the 2014 general election ballot: Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to prohibit the rate-and-change setting power of the Board of Water Supply from being used to establish retroactive billing practices?

BWS officials said a separate measure calling for a city audit is more appropriate. A few customers voiced their frustrations at a public hearing.

"I don't get call backs. I don't get follow up for months. Lucky I didn't pay it yet, but I'm willing to pay what I owe, not what they think I should pay because they didn't read the meter," said Ewa Beach resident Kevin Rathbum.

"We understand and empathize with our customers for the frustration, anxiety, and inconvenience that they experience, and we are continually working on ways to improve our services to our customers," said BWS manager and chief engineer Ernest Lau.

According to the agency, the number of estimated bills peaked at 94,000 or nearly 57% of customers in March. That's compared to the usual 3%. Lau said three major factors led to the spike in estimated bills, including the conversion to a new billing system, moving from bimonthly to monthly bills, and the aging automatic meter reading system.

"If this had happened in the private sector, Ernie Lau would be looking for a new job. That's harsh in one sense, but you know what? When government has a lower standard than the private sector, government gets a bad name," said activist Jim Anthony.

If there is no meter reading, an estimated bill is based on the usage from a year earlier, a month earlier, or similar customers in the neighborhood. After facing tough questions from council members, Lau promised to make changes.

"We will revise our estimation process to something that will hopefully get us closer to what a customer's actual usage is by using maybe recent months of usage and averaging that," said Lau.

He could not provide a cost or timeline for implementation of the new estimation system.

The resolution was passed out of committee for second reading.

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