FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – Many Fort St. John residents might not think about their water meter that often, or even check their water bill thoroughly, but a growing number are starting to keep their eyes peeled when a bill does arrive.
If a water meter isn’t working correctly, it will begin estimating. Julie Rogers, Communications Coordinator with the City explained how they charge for water usage.
“Water bills are based on water usage as determined by the meter. When the meter isn’t functioning the water bill is generated by the system based on past usage for that property. Estimated bills are clearly marked and highlighted that the amount owing is an estimate and an appointment needs to be booked to replace the meter.”
But recently, some Fort St. John residents have been noticing that meters are giving very high estimates. Rob Stirling is one of those residents. He says that he made several appointments to have his meter repaired, but that roughly appointments were either cancelled or the repair technicians never showed up. He said once his meter was fixed, he was hit with a $700 bill because they hadn’t been ‘estimating’ enough.
“It actually started estimating before I got the house. I believe it started estimating around 2011 and I bought in 2012. I noticed in about 2014 that it had a highlighted area that said ‘estimate only, call to have your meter fixed’. That is around the first time I would have called and over the years, every time I called and made the appointment they would keep cancelling it until it was repaired in July of last year.”
Stirling has paid the balance of what he owed but also says he emailed the City to let them know how he felt about the situation.
“There was no explanation of how it was estimating, that there would be a catch up payment at the end of this.”
The City did provide a response of how an explanation could be provided to a homeowner that wanted to know how the estimation was done.
“Estimated bills are noted that they are an estimate and the resident needs to call to make an appointment. An explanation of how the estimate is made can be provided to them when they call.”
Stirling says he understands the need for a make up payment but his major concern is with the averaging of water usage at his property.
“I understand the need for a make up payment because if it was actually totalling my water throughout the whole time, that is fine but they also just averaged it out over the years. Say four years ago, the water rate was $2 a cube and now it is $3 a cube, they are just averaging it out not knowing actually when any of that water was used. I feel that is a little unfair because it is their water meter, it is their property and they’re not going after this to try and get them fixed in a reasonable amount of time.”
Another Fort St. John resident who wished not to be named, explained that she had made appointments, but nobody showed up or called to tell her that they wouldn’t be coming. She says that when she contacted the City, her appointment had accidentally been cancelled instead of another customer that needed the appointment cancelled.
The City says that they currently have two water meter technicians on staff, and will always notify a homeowner if they will be late or cannot keep the appointment that was booked.
“Our technicians strive to make every single appointment. If they are running late they always call to notify the homeowner. In the rare event that an appointment is missed we will contact the resident/owner to reschedule asap.”
Licar Properties in Fort St. John is also having similar problems. Lita Powell says their problems dated back to when the meters were originally installed. They say they had to go through setting up appointments and the technicians would also not show up. They even were told that they needed to replace the batteries in the system, something that you can’t do because the systems don’t apparently run on batteries.
The City says that if a customer owes money or has a high bill, they will work with the homeowner.
“When the meter is repaired or replaced the water usage estimates are recalculated with the new usage averages. Some residents/owners receive a refund. If there is an amount owing a detailed explanation of how that amount is calculated is provided. Our Finance staff will work with homeowners on payment options that will work for them without any penalties or interest.”
The common problem that many have is that the City estimates usage based on a given home’s occupants when its meter was working last, but that water usage might be different if a new occupant has moved in something Powell says is confusing.
“All of these estimations for the last four years, where did they get the idea of how much it was? There could have been a single person in there for 18 months or I could have had a family in there for two months. A single person certainly uses less water compared to a family.”
Powell says they just want to see more transparency and openness when it comes to the situation.
“Be open, be transparent, be honest about the issue, explain the issue and then people don’t try and second guess because when you are left second guessing with any authority, your mind automatically goes to the suspicious.”
When the City was asked if they are aware of the issues homeowners are currently having, they said that they are aware citizens need to make appointments to get the meter changed.
“We are aware that a number of properties have estimated bills and the resident/owner needs to make an appointment to have the meter changed. When they do not make an appointment within a few months we contact them directly in an attempt to expedite the meter replacement.”
The City says that back in 2006, they decided to change from charging a flat rate for water and sewer to having amounts calculated with a meter. This was done because the water consumption of Fort St. John residents was higher than national averages and would result in large investments of tax dollars to build future capacity.
However, the City began running into problems with the meters back in 2009.
“We started to experience meter transmitter failures in an alarming number of water meters, virtually all of the version 1 transmitters have had to be replaced, (over 6000 transmitters). These transmitters should have had a 15 or 20 year life but started to fail in Year Three. The City addressed this issue through a legal process and settled with the company who provided us with an improved version of the transmitters.
These new transmitters still needed to be installed and in large numbers. Through this time, the meters were still correctly measuring the water that was consumed, the data was just not being transmitted. Council, knowing the difficulty of installing that many transmitters, launched a program based on estimates with the understanding that once actual consumption was known, the resident would receive a bill based on actual usage. The resident would either receive a credit if the estimate had been too high or a corrected invoice if the estimate had been too low.”
The City says this is now a service that has three parts to it:
- Regular billings for those residents whose meters are working (now approximately 7000 bills a month)
- Replacement of faulty transmitters (we have about 400 remaining for replacement)
- Installation of meters for new residents
The City says they have installed thousands of new transmitters and are now left with properties that they are having trouble gaining access to.
The City of Fort St. John has provided a chart which shows that water usage has decreased since the installation of the meters.
If you have experienced issues with estimating and water meters, you can email Fort St. John city council at: [email protected] to express your concerns and issues.