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Parish accused of withholding information about failing water meters

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ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH, LA (WVUE) -

Residents argue St. John the Baptist Parish officials and employees are purposely withholding information about its failing water meter registers and overcharging them, but the parish president denies that claim and said residents are being under charged more often than not. 

Ten years ago the parish purchased a water meter system that uses radio frequencies to read consumption. 

The system had a ten year warranty and now more than 6000 of those smart meters no longer give out a signal. The parish CFO Ross Gonzales estimates by the end of the year more than half of the registers will no longer transmit a signal. 

It is a $6-million fix residents argue needs to be addressed immediately. 

"I know that they are aware of the problem, but when you call in to pay the bill to ask them about it, they don't tell you anything about it. So to me it's stealing. It's fraud," resident Blake Hornsby said. 

Hornsby recently moved to Laplace and said his water bills were as high as $200 a month. He believed it was just the average cost in his new home but when his bill jumped to more than $750 one month, he contacted the parish. 

"I've seen [FOX 8] cover this for multiple stories so I know that they are aware of the problem, but when you call in to pay the bill to ask them about it, they don't tell you anything about it," he said. "They completely are oblivious to the fact that an issue is going on. It's infuriating." 

Twice a parish employee checked his meter and twice he was told the problem was a leak on his end, according to Hornsby. 

When he checked his meter personally, there was no leak.

"Fortunately, I didn't have to call the plumber out, but I'm sure some people do to find out what they already know, faulty meters," he said.  

In January, FOX 8 highlighted this same issue in St. John. Resident Jodi Becnel was told her bill increased because of a leak, but a quick check of her meter showed there was no leak on her end. 

"To me, it's stealing. It's fraud. If they are aware of it yet they don't admit that and tell you it's your still your fault, pay that bill, seems like stealing to me. So where's that extra money going where these people are paying for these overages?" he asked. 

"There's a misconception that we are attempting to defraud or collect more money than we are doing and actually we are not. We are actually collecting less money because we are being cautious," St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom said. "We're taking the side that this is a spike that's a problem with our meters. So we're going to credit you, and we are going to work with you to not over bill you." 

Robottom said nearly all of the meters are reading correctly and only a handful have been inaccurate. 

She cannot explain why the incorrect readings are happening, and she said she cannot get an answer from the manufacturer, Master Meters, about why some meters have given inaccurate readings. 

The parish hired a firm for $40,000 to come up with a plan to fix the problem. The firm is expected to come back with a plan within the next four months. 

Taxpayers are expected to fund the $6-million needed to repair the meters through an issuance of bonds. 

"We talked about confidence and being comfortable enough to go to the public and ask for money. I don't think we're there yet. That's why we are doing this study," Robottom said. "We're going to continue to move forward with investigating other technologies, other systems, because we have to have a long range plan, but what we need y'all to know is that we can read your meter, it's just how." 

The registers that no longer transmit a signal need to be read manually. However, there are several instances where even the manual reading has been incorrect. 

"I feel fairly confident that the readings are correct but when it's abnormally high, I have no qualms about saying look back at their history, average them," she said. 

Robottom also said if anyone feels there bill is reading slightly high numbers as well to contact her office and employees will take a look. 

The parish did take a look at Hornsby's meter a third time, and he got a new one installed. But he is not convinced other residents are getting the same treatment. 

WinWater Works Company is a wholesaler out of Baton Rouge who sold the meters to St. John the Baptist Parish. 

The company's president C. Conley Greer said smart meters are installed in St. Tammany Parish, Tangipahoa Parish, the Town of Livingston and the Town of Walker. Greer said all of the locations are involved in register change out program, but he is unsure why there is such a large problem in St. John Parish. 

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