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Water bill increases blamed on meters

The Public Advocate's office and Queens residents are concerned new DEP water meters have caused spikes in water bills.
TimesLedger Newspapers

The city public advocate and Queens residents suspect new city DEP-installed water meters may be to blame in many cases of abnormally high water bills — some of which have jumped by as much as 1,000 percent.

An official at Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s office said 500 people, 167 of them from Queens, have come to the office saying their quarterly bills have inexplicably risen in cost after they received the new meters.

“They know something changed. They know the readings are different,” said the official, saying that in one case a customer’s new meter read 1,000 gallons of water usage in the middle of the night, even though the person lived alone and did not have any leaks.

In some cases, human error in installing the new meters is the likely cause of the high bills, according to the official, who asked not to be identified.

“Anytime you swap out old equipment and put new equipment in, you’re going to have some mix-up,” said the official. “It’s not a conspiracy, it’s not a systemic problem, but it’s the way the world works.”

The official said the Department of Environmental Protection has refused to admit to any technical errors and acknowledged fault in only one appeal brought to them.

A DEP official said all meters are factory-tested for accuracy before being installed and that billing disputes have been resolved in favor of the customer 12 percent of the time over the past fiscal year.

The public advocate official also criticized a DEP practice of reconciling water bills when a new water meter is put in place.

Prior to installing the new meter, a final manual reading of the old meter is taken and used to determine whether a customer has been under-billed for past estimated readings.

The official said the practice is problematic when a customer’s last non-estimated meter reading took place long before the time period for which the DEP reconciles water usage because there would be no way of determining whether the higher usage took place within that billable period.

The DEP official responded that under an agreement with the City Council, the DEP is permitted to reconcile estimated bills for four years’ worth of actual water use, but it only reconciles for the full four years when a customer is not current with their bill payments. If a customer is up-to-date, they will only be billed for the prior two years of actual water use.

Marie Adam-Ovide, who is on Community Board 8 in Fresh Meadows, said she heard from one woman who got a bill for almost $4,000 because DEP said her first meter was defective and re-billed her for two years.

Adam-Ovide said the woman is being unfairly penalized because DEP’s equipment was defective.

“It’s their responsibility to come, as DEP, to make sure their equipment is working,” she said.

The new automated meter readers, which the city began installing in 2009 and most residences and businesses now have, are intended to give DEP and customers real-time information about water usage and eliminate the need to send a department official to physically read the meters.

“The automated meter readers have saved our customers millions of dollars by providing them access in real time to their water consumption and notify them when they’re using a higher than normal amount of water,” the DEP official said.

Reach reporter Karen Frantz by e-mail at kfrantz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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