Parish Wi-Fi readers malfunction, causing massive water billing issue

Parish Wi-Fi readers malfunction, causing massive water billing issue
Published: Nov. 22, 2016 at 2:15 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 22, 2016 at 2:43 AM CST
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ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH, LA (WVUE) - One parish's Wi-Fi water meter system is malfunctioning, sticking residents with hefty bills and late fees.

"I saw my water bill, and it said $111," St. John the Baptist Parish resident Tina Dawson said. "I was like, whoa! Why is it $111?"

"It's almost double what it normally is," resident Travis Brignac said.

Ten years ago, St. John workers installed a system to more than 16,000 households and businesses that records water usage with Wi-Fi. Meter readers drive in front of homes and the information is sent to the system without workers ever getting out of their vehicles.

The system came with a 10-year guarantee, and now thousands of those Wi-Fi readers are breaking.

"Back in February of 2016, we probably had a little over 2,000 failures. We've since changed about 3,000 meters, and we are still back in the 2,000 range, which means they are failing just about as fast as we are replacing them," St. John Parish CFO Ross Gonzales said.

The broken Wi-Fi readers now need to be read manually. The parish only needed two workers reading meters with the Wi-Fi system, but now there is a backlog, and many residents are getting bills that often include more than one month's usage plus late fees.

"If somebody's bill is an extended period of time, we are working out payment terms. If they are unable to pay because of a higher bill, we are waiving late fees as long as the late fee is a result of an increased billing cycle and an increase bill. We kind of view that as our fault. We take responsibility for that," Gonzales said.

The parish currently has four water meter readers on the road and has gotten the billing time down to close to a one-month period.

Customers will only be billed for 365 days in the entire year, Gonzales said.

It is estimated to cost between $3 million $5 million to revamp the system, and the parish expects the remaining working meter readers to malfunction if they have not already.

"I can tell you we have got such a wide failure range right now, if we try to stagger this over the next three or four years, we'll have mass failures in a year, year in a half, two years and won't be able to keep up with the reading demand," Gonzales said. "It's kind of a double-edged sword that we are faced with right now."

The parish is looking at a system that is more appropriate for the long term and would not need to be re-installed every ten years. 
Parish officials also ask residents to clean out their water meters to assist workers in making the reading quicker because most of the meters have not been opened in a decade.

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