Hemelt: No-work employees & bill questions lowlight water meter battle

Published 12:02 am Saturday, February 17, 2018

There is little to feel confident with when listening to our elected leaders speak about water meters, billing concerns and a potential multi-million dollar expenditure planned to alleviate problems that have been years in the making.

Another St. John the Baptist Parish Council meeting usually just means more talk, more disagreement and a discouraging lack of specifics.

This week’s most recent meeting was no different.

The ever-present concern was brought up on multiple occasions during Wednesday’s four hours of Parish Council and Parish Finance Committee meetings.

The closest thing to action was the Parish Council’s authorization of a loan application to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to finance the replacement of commercial and residential water meters.

Parish administrators say, if approved, the loan would be for up to $6 million under low-interest requirements of less than 1 percent.

Parish President Natalie Robottom said St. John would be on the hook for payback only after the project is completed and only on what was spent.

The specifics end there. Questions that have brewed and burst over two years continue to linger.

What is the actual problem (infrastructure, personnel or both)?

A bit of everything, we’re told.

What are we going to do to fix it?

That is undetermined.

In December, Parish Council members approved a $65,950 contract with a Florida-based consulting firm to deliver a comprehensive financial planning and cost-of-service study for the parish’s water and sewerage systems.

A Thursday morning L’OBSERVATEUR request to the parish’s communications department seeking an update on the study and its expected preliminary report date was not answered as of mid-day Friday.

As we wait, ponder, information gather and collect complaints, Parish administrators are firm in one area — St. John’s water meter staff members are lousy.

Boy, that was disheartening to hear Wednesday afternoon. On several occasions, Robottom and Parish Council members discussed a sorry state of affairs involving repeated incidents where Parish employees directly assigned to water meter work blatantly abandoned their duties while on the clock, only to be photographed and monitored not doing their jobs.

“We monitor, then you suspend, then you fire,” Robottom said. “Then, guess what, the next group just does the same thing. It is not all about the mechanisms. Some of it is personnel and we continue to find that out.”

Robottom said tracking water meter staffers and administrating discipline has become a near full-time job.

We’re told the turnover rate remains high and additions of personnel and equipment to the problem have done little to help ongoing billing concerns that persist parishwide (one Council member shared she received a disconnect notice without ever receiving a bill. Sound familiar?)

Utilities Director Blake Fogleman, who said he has taken on a more direct role in the concerns since November, maintains customers can call him or come by the parish office to discuss billing concerns.

However, somewhat surprisingly to ongoing observers of the meter fiasco, Fogleman said this week he has not seen a spiked bill as result of malfunction or human error since his increased involvement.

Yet, billing remains a problem, with no clear answers on how the charges are assessed.

Are bills based on averages, estimates or actual readings? Based on discussion Wednesday, that depends on who and when you ask.

The answer was unknown Wednesday when administrators were asked how many months does the computer work with when calculating averages and estimates.

The answer was unknown Wednesday when administrators were asked when averages and estimates were used versus actual reads.

On Wednesday, a cost comparison of smart meters and electronic reading versus personnel-read meters was again requested.

Maybe such a breakdown could lead to answers, but the overwhelming fear to observers of these problems is we are no closer to an answer today than we were a year ago.

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