General Assembly members seek additional review
Following a summer of extreme drought, water usage was up across Rhode Island, including among Kent County Water Authority customers but because KCWA didn’t start sending out bills for summer usage until October, many customers were caught by surprise. Some had bills that were double their previous bill, or even higher.
“It even took us by surprise,” said KCWA Executive Director Dave Simmons in a recent interview. Simmons checked with other water authorities in the state, including in Providence, Pawtucket, Bristol, and Portsmouth, and they all had higher usage than in previous summers. The Providence Water, he said, saw the highest consumption in their recorded history in July.
Part of the higher usage can be attributed to the pandemic and more people working from home (more dishwasher use, more toilet flushes) but Simmons said the majority of the increase appears to have been outdoor water use (watering more often, filling up the kiddie pool regularly).
KCWA customers, however, did not get bills for that summer water use until starting in October, and that was only a third of the customers. KCWA bills quarterly but also in segments. It has 27,000 customers and they fall into three billing cycles. That’s because, according to Simmons, a meter reader has to go to every customer and read the meter. It’s a time-consuming and outdated process that KCWA is in fact in the middle of changing. So the customers in the first billing cycle (East Greenwich and part of Warwick) got their most recent bill in October for usage from mid May to mid August. The next group of customers were billed in early November for usage from mid June to mid September. The third of customers were billed in early December for usage from mid July to mid October.
KCWA began getting complaints after the second batch of bills were sent out, for customers in Coventry. Some saw their bills doubled, tripled or worse and they started complaining.
According to Simmons, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
“We had some COVID cases in early November and the whole office had to go remote,” he said. After the media picked up on some of the complaints, other people began looking at their bills and calling in.
“The call volume was too high for the remote system we’d set up,” he said. “We were caught flat-footed.”
As of this week, KCWA has received 499 complaints. It had reviewed more than 328 of them as of Dec. 10 – which involves going out to the customer and checking the meter. Only 6 out of the 328 have turned up actual errors, all of them clerical, Simmons said. They are continuing to work through the rest of the bills.
One of the questions customers – and now members of the General Assembly – have been asking is, do the higher bills have anything to do with the new meters KCWA is installing? (The authority is replacing every meter in its service area – meters that can be read remotely and which will allow the authority to move from quarterly to monthly billing.)
Simmons says that could account for some of the increase – new meters do tend to be more accurate than 20- to 30-year-old meters like those being swapped out. The older meters would still be working, just not working as well. But he said the real issue is just higher usage this past summer. In 2020, total water usage from May through September was 1.66 billion gallons. In 2019, for that same period, total usage was 1.42 billion gallons – a difference of 235 million gallons.
So far, the authority has replaced about half of the meters; Simmons said the program was put on hold for three months when COVID-19 hit, but the whole system should be replaced by late summer 2021.
State Sen. Lou Raptakis (Dist. 33, Coventry and EG) has had a lot of questions for KCWA, including about the meter-replacement program. He and other state legislators from the area, including Sen. Bridget Valverde (Dist. 35, EG, NK, SK and Narragansett) and Rep. Justine Caldwell (Dist. 30, EG and WG) wrote to the KCWA looking for answers.
Raptakis was part of a virtual meeting with the KCWA board last week (find a video of that meeting here) and on Monday he said he is still not satisfied by the results of the investigations into individual complaints.
“I’m not satisfied until the ratepayers are satisfied,” he said. “Right now, every response that we’re getting 99 percent is there’s nothing wrong with your meters.”
The number of complaints just seems too high, he said, suggesting other problems.
“The current investigation data indicates no systemic issue in the meter reading or billing system,” said Simmons in a response to a letter from the GA members.
For Simmons, the water use is the water use. When KCWA employees walk customers through the use as it shows on their meter, the customer usually agrees they used that water, he said.
Not always, however. For customers still questioning their bill, the next stop is the state Division of Public Utilities & Carriers for an independent evaluation.
Tom Carrier, spokesman for RIDPUC, said they’d received 96 complaints as of last week. So far, they’ve completed 12 reviews and found no anomalies, which they have conveyed directly to the customers.
Raptakis said he wants the state auditor general to look at the KCWA, citing in addition to the bill complaints, an antiquated billing system.
The billing system was already in the midst of a big change. Recent events have prompted KCWA to move faster and Simmons said he will be asking the state Public Utilities Commission (which oversees all Rhode Island utilities) to approve faster implementation.
No shut offs are taking place right now anyway due to COVID-19 but Simmons said the authority never shuts off a customer if there is a billing dispute.
Ironically, KCWA had some good news to share in September – a 15 percent rate decrease for most residential users. That news got lost in the brouhaha over the summer bills but will be reflected in all usage from September on.
The rate drop comes because KCWA had instituted a (PUC approved) rate increase three years ago to cover the cost of the new meters and installation. That program has been paid for so the increase in the bill was no longer necessary.
“We can only meet our revenue requirements,” Simmons said. “We can’t exceed them.”
He also noted the authority would be completely debt-free as of Jan. 1, paying for capital improvements and infrastructure through special accounts ($2.9 million and $6 million, respectively).
“Fixing the pipes in the ground is mostly pay as you go, if not all,” he said.
Simmons said he understood people’s frustration or even shock at the high summer water bills and the authority would work with anyone who had a question.
“What can seem simple to us can be very confusing to the layman,” he said.
You can find the GA members’ letter to KCWA here: Recommendations for KCWA.
Find KCWA’s response here: KCWA Response to Senators and Representatives.
If you feel your bill is too high, here are the steps to take:
- Compare your bill with the bill for the same period last year. Water use is always higher in the summer than during any other time of year.
- Contact KCWA (HERE) to say you want your bill to be investigated.
If you are still not satisfied, contact the RIDPUC (HERE).