City, citizens at odds on water bills

Published 10:26 am Wednesday, January 9, 2019

By Ken Stickney

A Port Arthur pastor Tuesday urged the City Council to show compassion to citizens who are plagued by problems related to water services billing. Among the problems, he said, are instances of dramatic overbilling to residential customers and occurrences when customer service has been cut off without warning.

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City Hall water billing staff, in turn, explained in detail how the city is trying to correct billing problems that extend back to 2015, while seeking to recoup losses to the city.

The Rev. Harry Abrams, who picketed City Hall in December over what he said was an errant bill to his elderly mother, spoke on her behalf and for several citizens present who are struggling over billing and payments.

Abrams, who writes a religion column for The Port Arthur News, said at the City Council meeting many problems were related to faulty transmitters installed by the city, which is replacing some 1,500 of them.

He also suggested that some customers were being charged for leaks that were occurring on the city’s side of the pipelines, and that the city has abruptly turned off service on distressed customers.

Among those who accompanied Abrams were the Rev. Samuel Joseph — his water had been cut off that day, Abrams said, nine days ahead of his payment date — and Christine Laughlin, who showed a previous water bill asking for $67,969.32 payment for water at a single-family dwelling she rents out. She said the bill had been reduced substantially after meeting with city officials — but still not enough.

Abrams asked the City Council to refund customers for overcharges and to establish some program of forgivable loans for residents seeking to fix leaks on their properties.

In a presentation to the City Council, the water department detailed problems with billing and collections that began in 2015 when city workers wrongly spliced wiring for some customers’ meters that caused them to pay no charges for water they had used. About 1,500 meters were affected, the department said, and those meters are in the process of being replaced. Customers are being billed for water that was used but not paid for, while the city is offering payment plans — in some cases, they are stretching to two years — to help those who can’t pay at once.

Dr. Hani Tohme, who oversees the water department, and Rhonda Stansberry, who oversees billing, said in some cases, some water users have intentionally bypassed the city’s meter system to get water for free. That type of theft, Tohme said, has cost the city some $300,000 to $500,000 a year, and the water department has vowed to curb that illegal practice and recoup some losses through penalties.

Tohme said while the city has worked with customers who are behind on their payments, in some cases they have cut off customers who haven’t paid or responded to the city, a tack in which he said the department “finds no pleasure.” Bills must be addressed, he said, before they get “too large.” In some cases, he said, businesses have gone bankrupt without paying their water bills, leaving the city at risk.

Councilmembers assured Abrams that the city addresses every bill as “an individual case.” Some customers, Councilman Harold Doucet said, are at fault for their bills. Nor could the city establish a loan program for customers, he said.

Doucet suggested that if there is a discrepancy in billing, the city would protect the customer as the city moves forward to implement a new, more accurate billing system.

City Council members urged citizens who believe they’ve been billed in error to contact City Hall or their City Council representatives.