By Tom Travis
Flint residents are being given a fresh start on their water bill amounts as a $9.2 million program to replace and install new water meters continues city-wide, Mayor Sheldon Neeley announced at a press conference Friday.
Joined by Flint City Council Vice President Maurice Davis (2nd Ward) and Councilperson Eva Worthing (9th Ward), Neeley announced an executive order to immediately offer adjustment to residents’ water bills in the transition to what he called the “New Meter – New Start” program.
Under the new program, residents will not be responsible for an inaccurate read of the old meters. Residents still have to pay for the consumption of water in past due billing amounts, but not for what he called the “ballooned” portion of past bills created by differences between estimated billing and actual readings now facilitated remotely by the new system.
In a press release issued after the announcement, City Communications Director Marjory Raymer explained it this way:
“Because the old meters use antiquated and often malfunctioning technology, in many cases residents have been paying estimated water bills. When the new meters are installed, crews sometimes find that households have not been charged enough for months or even years. As had been standard procedure, that past water usage that had not been charged to customers was put on their next water bill.
This balloon payment came at no fault of the residents who had been paying their bills as calculated by the city. About four percent of households where meters have been replaced so far were impacted.”
The mayor said he wanted to be clear it’s not that a resident’s entire old bill is being forgiven, but rather the differences between estimated billing under the old system and actual billing now facilitated by the new meter-reading system.
If the situation is reversed, residents will receive a credit. For example, if they had been charged for six units of water over a period of time and the new meter reads that they are only using four units of water, a credit will be applied.
Mayor Neeley explained he was watching a recent city council meeting and heard council members and city residents talking about $800 and $1000 water bills. The mayor began to ask questions and investigate why they had such high water bills. He discovered that many residents were experiencing what has come to be called “ballooned” water bills.
“Even though we’re a cash-strapped city.” Neeley said, “We will not, we will not, we will not bill our residents unduly for a matter of poorly functioning equipment in their homes.”
He explained, “Say for instance that a home was estimated as using four units of water over a period of time. And that was estimated for a long period of time maybe even up to six months or so. When the new meter was installed it read they were actually using six units of water.”
So when the new meter was installed those two additional units were added to the bills causing a “balloon” effect in the bills. Sometimes those two additional units were added to residents’ bills for a period of months and even up to a couple of years.
“So say a family was used to a regular water bill of $120, for example, then they begin getting a bill of $800 to $1000, that’s too much for any regular family to financially absorb.”
Mayor Neeley stated, repeating an earlier theme, “Even though we are a cash-strapped city we have to be a compassionate city. We have to be a caring city for the residents that we serve. The best thing that I could come up with was the New Meter – New Start program.
The program will forgive only the difference between estimated and actually-used water in the months before the switch. It does not impact past-due bills or illegally-accessed water, Raymer emphasized.
Once the new meter is installed the resident will receive an actual read of water consumption.
To be clear, moving forward if residents use six units of water they will be charged for those six units now that the readings can be actual every month via the remote system. Residents will pay for actual usage.
Raymer said the City of Flint will immediately change billing procedures.
“For households that already have had their meter changed, the city will go back and adjust bills as needed. That process has begun, but may take another billing cycle to complete. If residents have any questions or concerns, they can contact our customer service department at (810) 766-7015.”
Council Vice President Davis said, “We wanted to address the concerns of the city being frustrated with what they’re calling ‘balloon’ bills.”
“It’s imperative to get the new meter. Nothing to be afraid of. It will be a benefit to the community. It’s a digital reading. There are apps you can download to your phone to see the new water being consumed,” Davis said.
Councilperson Eva Worthing (9th Ward) added, “I want to thank the administration for doing this today. Mayor Neeley was watching when I proposed the ordinance that they can’t back our estimated bill for more than three months. It’s been in my ward that they have started.”
“There were some in the 9th ward that had estimated readings done for years, with bills that totaled $800 and $1000. I was trying to come up with a solution for this problem and with an ordinance it could take up to nine months to go into action.”
“With the City Administration making this an executive order, then it’s immediate and we don’t have to worry about this anymore. So I’m really thankful that the administration listened to the concerns of the residents and council and they’re making this happen.”
Mayor Neeley reiterated the words of Council Vice President Davis, “Don’t be afraid to let this new technology come into your home. We need to be able to say we are better, stronger city using the most accurate tools that we can.”
The following question/answer format is to help readers understand the new program.
Q: What do I do if I have an $800 or $1000 bill? What do I do for this month?
Mayor Neeley: Just pay what your actual usage was on that new meter system.
Q: How much is the city writing off by not charging for the water used?
Mayor Neeley: We’re not writing off much of anything. We’re just gaining good will. So we’re writing into it a heart and compassion for the residents that we serve.
Q: What percentage of the city homes have new meters?
Mayor Neeley and Marjory Raymer, City Communications Director: 5,000 homes out of the 26,000 in the city have new meters so far. Neeley said the Vanguard Utility company (http://www.vusinc.com) is changing approximately 500 meters per week and will move through the city systematically, through each ward and street by street.
Presently the meter changing is taking place on the southwest side of the city and is moving north east as they replace meters, Raymer said.
Q: Is there a cost to get the new meter installed?
Mayor Neeley: No, not to the resident. Money from the water crisis is being used and this is part of our infrastructure repair.
The process of notification to residents was explained this way:
- Residents will receive a notice in the mail explaining to the resident when Vanguard Utility will be on their street to change their water meter.
- Do not refuse Vanguard Utility to come in and replace the old water meter with the new meter. Vanguard Utility workers will carry credentials with them identifying them. If there is any question by the resident they are asked to contact city hall.
Q: How much does the meter replacement cost the city?
Mayor Neeley: The money from the water crisis in the form of federal government and the state government money is covering the $9.2 million cost of installation and equipment in the water meter replacement.
Questions or concerns about the new program can be directed to the city’s customer service department at (810) 766-7015.
EVM Assistant Editor and City Council Beat reporter Tom Travis can be reached at email@example.com.