Hemelt: Water bills, communication hurt perception

Published 12:04 am Saturday, July 29, 2017

If you pay a water bill in St. John the Baptist Parish, this story is going to sound familiar and, possibly, a little frustrating.

Anna Ocmand lives in the 100 block of Timbermill Loop in Garyville. The half-mile road takes about 15 minutes to walk at a leisurely pace, a time Anna knows well because she has lived there for the past 38 years.

When it comes to her St. John the Baptist Parish Utilities Office water bill, she noticed irregularities about a year ago.

The totals and days read and charged have varied greatly.

Finally, her July 11 bill sent her looking for answers. She was charged for 48 days of service.

“I noticed the water bill was higher and our daughter has been (out of the house) in California for the last month,” she explained to me this week. “I went across the street and asked, ‘how much was your water bill?’ They pulled out their water bill and were looking at days. He was charged for 32 days and I was charged for 48 days. Then, I came back home and went to another neighbor and asked to see her water bill, which was for 45 days.”

Anna said a water department employee was back out checking meters again within a week.

“There seems to be total incompetence in management in running their office if this is what they are doing,” she said.

Confused and looking for answers she scanned and emailed her water bill, along with her two neighbors’, to numerous Parish Council members and Parish Government workers.

Outside of one councilman calling in to check on the situation, she told me she heard nothing in the form of an explanation or anything that would provide comfort that the situation is going to improve.

“I don’t mind paying my fair share but I don’t understand why my consumption went up when a member of the family was gone,” Anna said. “The other two neighbors were gone for a week and out of their house. That is a whole week of non-consumption. I just think something is very strange.

“This is a little bitty section of St. John Parish; we’re the furthest outskirts. If this is happening in this little subdivision, then I can just imagine it is a much greater problem.”

Her questions seemed honest to me, so I reached out to the St. John Utilities and Communications departments, leaving numerous messages.

None were returned.

Anna said one of her neighbors has taken it into his hands to go pay every 30 days. Another neighbor said, “I’m going to wait until the last day to pay my water bill.”

“We have a neighbor down the block that got a $1,500 water bill,” Anna added in frustration. “That’s for real. It’s ludicrous. We’re just frustrated with such vast differences and inefficiency in the office. It’s frustrating that no one gets back with you.”

I’ve noticed similar concerns on the bill for my family’s Reserve home.

After not receiving a bill for well more than a month, my wife went down to the office this week to see about paying. She was told that was not possible, as our meter had not yet been read for late June or July.

A coworker of mine also recently dealt with the hassle of being removed from autopay and being sent a disconnect notice despite never asking for such.

It’s almost as if some in the department are working not to get paid.

Seeing and dealing with this while attending Council meetings where our elected leaders discuss a more than $5 million investment in new water meters doesn’t provide much comfort.

I worry for the effective use of such funds when inefficiency and lack of communication define the current situation.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.