Tulsan people expect their water bills to be different by the end of the year, one of several steps the city is taking to make them easier to understand and improve the overall billing system.
City Finance Director James Wagner said the work began in the fall, when the city began receiving higher-than-usual complaints from residents who said they were either unable to reach a customer service center or waited too long.
“So TMUA asked if we could make some adjustments to the way we do things,” Wagner said.
The Tulsa Metropolitan Utilities Authority (TMUA) is a seven-member agency that oversees the city’s water and sewer systems.
Wagner’s report to authorities last week showed the city still isn’t responding to customer calls as quickly as hoped, while call volumes remain well above the city’s stated goals.
As of this month, customer service (or 311) has only answered 7% of calls within 45 seconds; the goal is to increase that number to 85%. Meanwhile, calls to customer service hit more than 38,000 this month; the city wants to see that number drop to no more than 25,000.
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To address those issues — as well as the water outages and other customer issues that have caused many calls — the city plans to hire 10 more customer service representatives and a supervisor who will be dedicated to assisting utility customers.
The city has hired two temporary employees whose only job is to help customers whose water supply has been or will be interrupted. In addition, there are signs hanging on the customer’s door.
The city is also developing an automated system that can contact customers by phone.
Changes in water bills
The pandemic has made life difficult for everyone. At City Hall, the situation was further complicated by a ransomware attack that shut down many of the city’s computer systems early last year. For utility customers, that means fewer payment options.
To help customers, the city halted service disruptions to customers who delayed payments, but that inevitably led to some customers struggling to pay new, larger bills when the city began disrupting service again.
Combine that with the city’s new billing system, which rolled out in May, and you get an idea of what’s causing the increase in calls to the city’s 140,000 water customers, city officials said.
“Our billing folks can add up those numbers and show the customer how we got that number, but the average customer has trouble with that,” Wagner said. “That’s the feedback we’ve heard from customer service.”
“So what we did was, we said, ‘Let’s redesign the front page of the bill.'”
Many of the complaints the city receives from water customers come from 1% to 2% paid plans. Wagner said the problems they had had to do with the way the bill was laid out.
The biggest, boldest number on the bill, below “Total Due” in the upper left corner, is the current month’s usage, but doesn’t necessarily reflect everything a person owes. For those customers on a payment plan, the “Next Payment” amounts are listed below in smaller quantities.
To add to the confusion, the maturity date is different for each amount. New bills will be clearly marked with “Total Due”, with monthly bills and installment plan amounts shown in smaller font. Both will expire on the same date.
“That’s right,” Wagner said of the existing water bill, “but it’s confusing, because why are there two due dates? We finally agreed — forget it, let’s align the two dates. Bar.”
Is your water bill accurate?
Clayton Edwards, director of the city’s water and sewer department, said the city’s meter reading system is 99 percent accurate.
But he also heard clients disagree.
“I think part of the reason is that sometimes when we have to estimate the readings, the bill can be overestimated, and that’s probably one of the reasons,” Edwards said. “And a lot of times there can be leaks in their systems.
“Just like the flapper valve in their toilet may be leaking, they may not even know it’s leaking.”
Getting accurate meter readings — not estimated readings — starts with having enough meter readers. Edwards said Friday that 14 of the city’s 17 meter-reader jobs have been filled, but that number fluctuates, and many of those in the job haven’t been there for long.
“With no meter readers, we couldn’t actually read the meters, so the readings were estimated through the billing system,” Edwards said.
This begs another question: How does a city “estimate” a customer’s water usage?
Utilities systems manager Troy Stafford said it was all based on previous usage and time of year.
For example, for the winter months, the city typically looks at the average customer usage over that time period for each of the past three years. For estimates made during the summer months, the City bases its estimates on average usage over the past 12 months.
“Because, if they have an irrigation system, if they use more water in the summer, it’s a more accurate estimate because it includes both summer and winter, so you have a more rounded average because people don’t always Water their home. Have a lawn every year or every month,” Stafford said.
Stafford said it’s important for the Tulsan folks to understand that their water meter works like an odometer, continuously counting the gallons of water customers are using. They don’t stop and reset every month.
“We just calculated the difference between the readings this month and the readings last month,” Stafford said.
That’s why the city can go back and pinpoint the actual usage of customers who estimated last month’s bill, Edwards said, specifying clear labels marked “EST” for estimated reads and “ACT” for actual reads.
Depending on whether the estimate is high or low, “you might get a credit, or you might get charged more, but every time you get an actual reading, it’s going to be right,” Edwards said.
In the long term, the city plans to use an automatic meter reading system. But it won’t happen overnight.
“Our plan is to replace all our meters with AMRs,” Edwards said. “And we’re working on a plan that’s at least three to five years. The fastest we can do it is five years.”
Tulsan people with questions about water bills are encouraged to email the city at [email protected].
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