Water meter ‘excuses’ are troubling; Workshop planned to address billing cycles, charge spikes

Published 12:15 am Wednesday, August 16, 2017

LAPLACE — St. John the Baptist Parish officials are going back to the drawing board to secure a long-term solution to water meter billing concerns; however, some progress was expressed recently in reducing parish-billing cycles down to 38 days.

The major issues expressed by residents continue to be erratic billing cycles spanning more than 40 days and seemingly unexplained spikes in billing that don’t match previous charges.

Parish President Natalie Robottom described the situation as exhausting, adding the answers from staff members addressing the concerns are insufficient.

Robottom said she wants to set up a workshop with Parish Council members to discuss possible solutions. The public is welcome to attend the workshop at 6 p.m. Aug. 24 in Council Chambers at the Percy Hebert Building in LaPlace.

The cost of replacing all St. John meters is approximately $6 million; however, Robottom said that level of investment might not be necessary.

According to Councilwoman Jaclyn Hotard, the biggest decision facing the Parish Board is investing millions of dollars into a new automatic system or going back to a manual reading system.

“Both of our neighboring parishes are on manual systems, and it’s working,” Hotard said. “To me, that is the million dollar question. I know the financial strength of the parish is not one where every so many years we can spend millions of dollars on the utility system. That is what we need to decide, manual or automatic, and what is it going to cost us?”

During last week’s Council meeting, Hotard questioned Utilities Billing Manager Curtis Young on why residents couldn’t be alerted electronically every 30 days when their bills are ready.

“All of my other utilities — Entergy, Atmos, BellSouth, everybody — send an email when the bill is ready,” she said. “It’s like clockwork. When will we be doing that?”

Hotard was told St. John does not have that capability and would need to pursue that option with vendors if a new system is approved.

Young did say billing cycles have been reduced to 38 days, while acknowledging the charging spikes are, to this point, unexplained.

He said St. John was in the process of estimating bills over an 18-month history.

Councilman Marvin Perrilloux said water department responses sound like “a lot of excuses.”

Councilman Larry Sorapuru Jr. asked what type of time frame is needed to pick the right company, software, meters or registers necessary to solve residents’ concerns.

That request led to the workshop suggestion.

Robottom said a review of St. Charles Parish shows a routine manual reading system of 16,000 meters that works in conjunction with electronic reading of outer-edge meters. That plan seems compatible to St. John Parish, which has approximately 17,000 total meters.

“The number of days in the cycle is a separate issue from the spiking bills,” Robottom said. “We did continue to meet with some other firms. There are other options. Initially, we looked at pricing for meters and registers. Everybody is saying we’re only halfway through the life of our meters. (The problem is) our registers may need to be replaced.

“The other thing that is a concern is our old antiquated billing cycle. If we go with any new software, we’re going to be running two billing systems. However, one of the vendors suggested their software could read any system. We are continuing to gather information to provide to you.”

Robottom again stressed there is no reason why Parish staff can’t get billing filed and out in 30 days.

The Parish is working with customers to avoid disconnects and late charges, and Robottom said some residents have taken to not paying their bills.

“We’re losing money because we’re trying to not cause problems for our residents,” she said. “There are also people who are taking advantage of it and just not paying their bills. We pull their history and they haven’t paid their bill in three months or they pay every other month. There are people who are taking advantage when we say we are not disconnecting people. The bottom line is our utilities system cannot support itself because they are not collecting the money that is due or we’re not collecting in a timely manner.”