Utility bill surprises residents

News editor

Some Hillsboro and Marion residents who have been enjoying recent moderate temperatures may be startled by what they find when they open their October utility bills.

Electric charges might seem high, but city officials say it’s an annual complaint when fall weather races ahead of utility billing cycles.

“The October bill is actually consumption from the middle of August to the middle of September, when it’s still hot,” Hillsboro city administrator Larry Paine said. “We transition into fall and we forget temperatures were high during that time when electrify was consumed.”

Marion city administrator Roger Holter said his office gets more billing questions in October.

“We see it more on electrical consumption than on the water side,” Holter said. “The best example is most people have had the last two weeks without the need for air conditioning. When they see the bills that are due, they’re thinking they haven’t run their air conditioners lately.”

Both Paine and Holter said people with questions about their bills should call or come into their offices, but that doesn’t always happen.

Some Hillsboro residents aired their complaints on social media last week, and Paine found himself in front of a Wichita television news crew answering questions. He said it was just part of his job.

“We were able to look at some of the records and have an understanding of where they were coming from,” he said.

Hillsboro has a city worker manually read electric and water meters each month, but sometimes they have to have residents read their own meters.

“We’ve got a couple of properties that have dogs in the back yard,” he said. “Dogs are very protective of their home property, so when a stranger walks in they become mildly aggressive. We’ll tag that property with a note asking ‘Would you please read the meter and call that into the office.’”

If a resident’s report is inaccurate, an adjustment after the meter is read by the city could result in an abnormally high or low bill, Paine said.

Some perceived errors may actually be changes in consumption related to mechanical breakdowns or temporary changes from normal usage patterns.

“They could have visitors show up for a couple of weeks, so a family changes its air conditioning habit,” Paine said.

Holter said a common household item is often the culprit when water bills take an unexpected leap.

“The vast majority of high readings we’ve experienced over the last year ends up being a defective toilet,” he said. “A toilet that’s supposed to use 1.6 gallons a flush, if it runs all the time, can run upward of 10,000 gallons in a month’s period.”

An average household of two uses around 2,400 gallons of water a month, Holter said. When the usage rate jumps to 5,000 gallons a month as some have reported, toilets are often the culprits.

Marion has it easier when it comes to its monthly meter readings. Having equipped nearly all water and electric meters with radio transmitters, the signals can be recorded as a meter reader drives by.

The system works well, but it isn’t foolproof, Holter said. If a leak develops in a water meter pit and it fills up, however, readings can be absent or erroneous.

In one case, the error was huge.

Marion Presbyterian Church pastor Jeremiah Lange came into the city office to question a bill he believed was too high.

“Jeremiah came in smiling but a little concerned,” Holter said. “He said, ‘It’s probably hard to use $50,000 worth of water in this city.’”

Indeed, the church’s water bill was for about $50,000, the equivalent of an almost full water tower, Holter said.

The radio receiving unit misinterpreted the signal, recording a full read cycle instead of the typically small amount of water used during Sunday services and mid- week activities.

Paine once had a $1 million billing error reported.

“The customer called and said, ‘I think we’ve got an error,’” Paine said. “The ladies in the office looked at it and said ‘I think you’re right.’”

Paine said Hillsboro is gradually converting some meters for electronic reading as opportunities arise, but a full-scale conversion is likely years away.

Price is the main factor, Paine said. The cost of installing electronic read capability for all water and electric meters in Hillsboro would be about $650,000.

Both cities will send out readers to check potentially errant readings, assess any connection problems that would be their responsibility to repair, and work with residents to make adjustments when they’re warranted.

“We don’t have a perfect meter reading process,” Paine said. “We make mistakes. Usually the mistakes are small and can be made up fairly well.”

Holter also encouraged residents with questions or concerns to call or come by.

“You’re dealing with mechanical equipment, and electronics on top of that,” he said. “We’re like any other business, it’s a service. We want to make sure we’re doing what’s right by our customers.”

Last modified Oct. 20, 2016

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