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Village utility changes beget odd bills

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Opening bills usually isn’t something most people look forward to. But the trepidation accompanying monthly bills has been on the increase over the past electric and water billing cycles, as a number of Yellow Springs residents have received utility bills significantly — and in some cases, astronomically — higher than usual.

While some charges are clearly the result of some kind of computer error (one residence was billed tens of thousands of dollars), many residents have found that their bills have doubled or tripled while their household’s overall electrical or water usage does not appear to have increased significantly. Summer generally means an increase in the use of air conditioners and sprinklers, but many residents are confused as to how the normal use of these appliances adds up to surprisingly high bills. And the fact that many residents have bills taken directly from their checking accounts can be troublesome, even if the erroneous charge is reimbursed.

So what has been happening with these unexpected utility bills?

Melissa Vanzant, assistant Village manager, said in a recent interview that, in short, the confusing bills reflect a number of recent changes to utility rates and billing processes. Over the past seven months, she said, the Village has installed over 2,500 new electric meters, has changed from a three-month to one-month water billing cycle and has begun charging higher rates in accordance with across-the-board rate increases adopted by Council last fall.

“A lot of change has happened in a short period of time,” she said.

While some of the higher-than-expected bills can be linked to errors in the Village adopting new processes, she said, leaking appliances and underestimating how much electricity household appliances use, for example, can quickly add up, catching homeowners off-guard when they open their bills.

An increase in rates

Villagers began seeing higher utility rates across the board in January of this year, in accordance with the five-year scheduled utility increases passed by Village Council last fall.

According to legislation, water rates will increase by 30 percent a year for the next three years, and then by 2.25 percent for two years after that. Sewer rates will increase by 15 percent per year for four years, with a three percent raise for one year after that. The increases are designed to help fund construction of the new water plant, and to start saving money for future maintenance projects, according to a utility rate analysis report presented at a Nov. 2, 2015 Council meeting.

In February of this year, Council voted to increase electric rates by around 12.7 percent per year for residential customers and around nine percent for businesses. Vanzant explained that the increase for residential customers was to offset billing inequities. The larger customers were essentially subsidizing residential users, and the newer rates more accurately reflect the usage of individual households, she said.

In addition to paying for what they use, all utility customers pay a readiness-for-service charge each month, a flat rate for being hooked up to the utility infrastructure. The RFS rate for sewage is $11.50; for water is $6.80; and the minimum charge for electric is $10.

Effect of new meters

Joshua Miller attributes his increased utility bill to the new electric meter installed at his house.

“They put in a new smart meter in March and the electric bill went through the roof,” he said.

Beginning in January, the Village contracted a third party to install 2,500 new electric meters across the village. The dials in many of the meters, many of which were 50 years old, were not working accurately and may have even stopped turning entirely, Vanzant said. The faulty equipment translated to inaccurate readings, as the older meters wouldn’t record all of a household’s electrical usage. The new meters are much more accurate, she said, and this accuracy shows that in some cases customers are using more electricity than they were being billed for before.

Miller said his bill promptly doubled when the meter was installed. Miller said the electric usage for his 1,000-square foot home comes in at around 900 kw/h per month, almost double what he said it should be for a house his size. This amount seems improbable, he said, as his stove and hot water heater are both gas, and he doesn’t have central air. The only thing he has been running in addition to the normal electrical appliances is a dehumidifier, he said. The Village said his higher bill reflected a one-time charge for the installation of the new meter, but Miller said the bill has stayed at the same higher rate since the meter was installed.

“In the dead of winter, we were being charged for 500 kw/h,” he said. “Now it’s almost double that somehow.”

Miller said he was given somewhat contradictory information by the Village about his elevated bills.

“They told me they ‘guarantee everything is fine,’ but also told me that it could be a faulty meter,” he said.

To address the unusual bill, a representative from the Village said a new meter will be installed at his house. The installation is pending, Miller said.

Vanzant agreed that some billing errors might have happened in conjunction with the new meters. If a new meter was installed halfway through a month, she said, the usage amounts indicated on the old meters had to be transferred to the new meters. The software used for billing and the software of the handheld meter readers have to communicate with each other, and sometimes glitches happen during this communication.

“The integration of the new software has caused some hiccups,” Vanzant said. “We’ve absolutely had issues with that.”

Megan Bachman is one electrical customer who has had trouble with billing glitches. In her household’s first month with the meter, she was charged $6,523 for electrical usage. The charge was for 75,000 kw/h, or that of an enormous business. She took her utility bill to the Village and got the charge corrected to the more realistic amount of $62.

Michael and Tracey Knopp got a bill for around $20,000. Michael said he was told that the meter’s dials did a complete circle and that the accounting system didn’t catch the error. The water department said it would correct the bill and send him an amended bill as part of the next month’s cycle.

These situations are indicative of both the glitches that have occurred with the changeover but also the Village’s interest in promptly correcting them, Vanzant said.

“The Village worked to rectify these errors as quickly as possible,” she said. “Nobody paid for utilities they didn’t use.”

Changes to billing cycle

Another change is that villagers are now being billed for water usage on a monthly basis instead of quarterly. The changeover began earlier this summer, and has been implemented throughout the village on a staggered schedule, Vanzant said. The fact that some villagers have gotten quarterly bills while some have received monthly bills has added to the confusion, and has contributed to the apparent disparity in amounts that households are being charged.

Villagers were previously charged based on estimated usage, Vanzant said, as quarterly water bills took into account the amount of water used over previous months. For example, if a household used 12,000 gallons one month but then 8,000 the next, the household would be charged for more than 8,000 gallons on the corresponding billing cycle. While villagers were given credit towards their next bill for overestimated usage, there was no precise way to figure out what a monthly bill was going to be. The new monthly readings will address that confusion by billing for the actual amount of water used each month, she said. Customers are currently charged $7.50 per 1,000 gallons of water, in addition to the monthly RFS charge. All villagers should be on the one-month cycle by the time the next water bill is due on Aug. 15.

However, these more accurate readings can show how quickly water usage adds up, Vanzant said.

According to the EPA, a standard household uses around 400 gallons of water per day. A standard bath uses about 36 gallons of water, a load of laundry uses 25–40 gallons of water and outdoor faucets typically use about two gallons per minute. And according to the Regional Water Providers Consortium, water leaks account for approximately 12 percent of all water use in the average American home. In essence, old appliances, sprinklers or leaking pipes can contribute to a startlingly high water bill.

Diane Wilson reported that her mother, a Yellow Springs resident, recently experienced a water bill significantly higher than usual. A recent bill was $300, six times higher than the normal amount. The Village was very friendly about double-checking the charge, she said, and remained convinced that her mother’s leaking toilet was at fault for the high bill. The Village gave her a dye packet to trace the source of the leak. The Village’s investigations didn’t indicate there was any kind of error in the reading, and so she paid the bill, Wilson said.

Vanzant said the changes to utilities and billing are changes made for the better, though she said the changeover hasn’t been without “bumps along the way” over the past seven months. In fact, she said, it’s sometimes been a “real nightmare.”

However, she said, the utility office is there to help customers understand confusing bills. The utility office employees will happily sit down with confused customers and go over their bills with them, she said, printing out billing histories and recalculating charges.

In fact, the utility office is open extended hours to help address any bill-related problems. The customer service window is now open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, and open until 6 p.m. on the 15th of every month (or the Friday before if the 15th is a Saturday, or the Monday after if it’s a Sunday).

Utility billing clerks are available to assist customers with any questions and concerns regarding their utilities or billing between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday by calling 937-767-7202 and selecting option 2.

“We are willing to go over a bill and correct any errors,” Vanzant said. “Just come down here and talk to us. We’ll fix it.”

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