PWSA, plagued by billing complaints, gets another grilling at city council
November 30, 2015 12:18 AM
"It looks like it’s the fox guarding the hen house. I don’t believe that that’s correct, but I understand the public might see it that way." said Jim Good, executive director of the Pittsburgh Sewer and Water Authority.
Pittsburgh councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith .
By Robert Zullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Theresa Kail-Smith sounded sick of hearing “case by case.”
“That’s been your argument for the past year,” the Pittsburgh councilwoman told Jim Good, executive director of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, at a council budget hearing Tuesday. “Quite frankly, I just am very disappointed in the reaction from PWSA. I think there needs to be more of an effort to really, sincerely remedy this situation.”
Billing problems, including in some cases thousands of dollars in incorrect charges and bills that fail to arrive, and customer-service complaints have hounded the authority for nearly a year. That’s due in part to PWSA’s implementation of new meter-interface units that use wireless technology to relay usage information, software issues and, in some cases, what Mr. Good termed “human error.”
The authority is facing a lawsuit seeking class-action status over the billing problems, which some council members say are still the subject of frequent complaints to their offices.
“We continue to be concerned, certainly at city council, about the consistency, fairness and reliability of PWSA billing,” Councilwoman Deb Gross, who also sits on the PWSA board, said in an interview. She said her office still hears of new cases of missed bills and “exorbitant” bills.
During Tuesday’s hearing Mr. Good said the authority has set up a working group to provide oversight of the “advanced metering infrastructure” it has installed over the past few years; added a new managerial position for customer service; and cut the number of estimated bills it issues, which can lead to some sticker shock for customers when they later get “catch-up” charges based on actual meter readings.
“That’s not to say that things are where we want them to be and where they should be,” Mr. Good said.
Mrs. Kail-Smith also questioned the Water Exoneration Hearing Board, which examines customer appeals of bills. The board is constituted by city ordinance, legislation that Mrs. Kail-Smith suggested needs a rewrite.
“You’re judge and jury, and that’s what’s bothering me,” she said. “There’s no one holding you accountable for anything that’s going on at PWSA.”
Two authority members are appointed by PWSA, one member comes from the city solicitor’s office, one member is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by council and another is appointed by the mayor from a list submitted by council. Those last two seats are vacant, according to the city website.
“I think the public view is a legitimate one,” Mr. Good said in an interview. “It looks like it’s the fox guarding the hen house. I don’t believe that that’s correct, but I understand the public might see it that way. So we need to address that concern.”
Joanne Scoulos, who went through an exoneration board hearing last week in an attempt to fight charges for thousands of gallons of water in May and June that she said she and her husband didn’t use at their small Lawrenceville house, called the process “a joke.”
“Nobody understood when I asked them. They had no real information,” she said.
Like many customers who have challenged bills, Mrs. Scoulos and her husband say there were told by the authority to get a plumber to check for leaks. The house’s plumbing is new, the plumber found nothing and the bills have reverted back to normal, she said.
“They’re wacko,” she said of the authority.
Downtown lawyer Samuel Kamin, who appealed three bills from March and June and was rejected by the exoneration board, is suing to get the authority to reimburse him $157.50 he paid a plumber to hunt for nonexistent leaks after he got a nearly $1,700 bill that was later corrected. He was likewise unimpressed with the board’s process and the authority’s customer service department, which he said refused to send someone to examine the meter until after he hired a plumber.
“You have somebody from the city solicitor’s office who basically doesn’t want to be there. That normally is the chair,” Mr. Kamin said of the board. “I don’t want to be litigious. It gets frustrating. What I want them to do is to fix their customer service department. … They’re a public body. I represent 14 municipal governments. I would never get away with stuff like this.”
In an interview, Mr. Good said the authority is conducting “a fundamental overhaul of our customer service department.”
“But it doesn’t happen overnight. and it requires changes in processes, systems and people,” he said. But he acknowledged, “We could have a better bedside manner when our customers call.”
Mrs. Kail-Smith again called for the authority to cease issuing shut-off notices until it fixes its billing problems, saying the threat of service disconnection is pressuring customers to pay bills that may be incorrect.
“You know there are some concerns on your side. I think it’s unfair to the rate payers that you continue that practice,” she said.
Mr. Good was unmoved.
“We will continue to send shut-off to folks when the data indicates that they should receive one,” he said. “I would point out that of those customers who receive shut-off notices, only 10 percent are actually shut off.”
Robert Zullo: email@example.com, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @rczullo.
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