Solutions unknown as St. John leaders struggle with water billing, service & software problems

Published 12:15 am Saturday, March 31, 2018

LAPLACE — Challenges with billing meter readings that have plagued the St. John the Baptist Parish Utilities Department for more than a year appear to have no end in sight.

Despite a spirited give and take by all parties, the fundamental cause of the problems and its solution were not resolved during this week’s Parish Council meeting.

Complaints are often directed to the utilities department as residents deal with inconsistencies in their monthly bills. It’s not uncommon for residents to receive erroneous bills totaling several hundred dollars. According to some residents, the Parish adds penalties to unpaid balances and cuts off services.

Utilities Director Blake Fogleman said his office is working to put procedures in place stopping penalties and avoiding service termination.

The problems date back years as meter register began to come to the end of their average 10-year cycle, producing faulty readings. As a result, the parish implemented averaging bills based on past history — which some Parish Council members vehemently opposed.

There are reports of residents receiving bills of $300 to $700, although their average is approximately $60 a month. Adding to the dilemma are inconsistent billing cycles.

Fogleman told Council members his office is working to implement consistent billing cycles that cover approximately 30 days. He said 6,500 of the parish’s approximate 17,300 meters are being read electronically.

In many cases readers are having difficulty finding meters that are covered by grass and weeds.

“We anticipate that 100 percent of the meters will be read manually on a 30-day cycle within six months,” Fogleman said, adding the department has three full-time meter readers and three part-time readers.

He said he is also working an average water usage per household reference that can be put into an online database.

Fogleman, who was charged with helping solve the riddle in November, said 2,000 to 3,000 water meter registers have been replaced in the last two years.

In a lengthy presentation with Council members, he acknowledged his office has received complaints regarding rude employees. He said some of the employees “were never intended to be in front of residents but are there because of (needing help reading the meters).”

Councilman Thomas Malik said that type of behavior should not be tolerated, and at several points during the discussion accusations of poor management were directed at the department.

Dated computer technology was also pointed out as a culprit, officials agreed. The current software is grossly inadequate for modern needs, officials said. One of the drawbacks is residents are unable to view their bill online or access a pay portal.

Councilwoman Jaclyn Hotard said implementing a new billing system is essential no matter what direction the Council takes with new meters.

Fogleman said even with new technology, the earliest it could be fully rolled out would be nine months.

Hotard also asked the utilities department to provide a cost analysis comparing meters readers who are parish employees, continuing with electrical reading or hiring readers on a contract basis. She said she has been seeking for this information for a year but has not received it.

“I want this in two weeks,” Hotard instructed Fogleman.

Although at varying times the discussion included technology, meter readers and future ideas, it always looped back to incorrect meter readings, high bills and inconsistent billing cycles.

By the end of the discussion, no one was able to provide a clear-cut answer but it was generally agreed the problem would fester for a while longer.

— By By Richard Meek