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MoCo: WSSC Needs Independent Review Of Billing Disputes

By Aaron Kraut

Monday - 6/16/2014, 3:25pm  ET

WSSC logo, via WSSCA Montgomery County agency says WSSC needs an independent review of the roughly 60 complaints from Bethesda-area residents concerning more expensive than usual water bills.

The county’s Office of Consumer Protection released a report on Monday that said customers of the publicly-funded water utility don’t have an independent way to resolve billing disputes. The report also said the apparent lack of more sophisticated meter reading technology “gives the appearance” that WSSC’s readings could be “potentially subject” to inaccurate readings.

Councilmember Roger Berliner sent WSSC two letters since March asking it to look into its billing procedures. He also sent WSSC a list of the 60 complainants, some who claimed to receive water bills hundreds and even thousands of dollars higher than normal.

Berliner then asked the county’s Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) to look into the complaints. WSSC has maintained that any higher than usual water bills are because of leaks or the colder than usual winter that meant a longer winter billing cycle.

The report released Monday afternoon draws no conclusion as to if WSSC is in the wrong about the bills:

While there is no “one size fits all” explanation for each consumer’s allegations, there appear to be a limited number of possible explanations for why water usage and the corresponding water bill may be higher than usual:

- the consumer used more water,

- the consumer had a leak (permanent or intermittent),

- the meter was not properly read by WSSC, or

- the meter was not properly operating

In some instances a spike in water usage was followed by a return to normal water usage readings. In some cases the fluctuations were 200% to 400% while other consumers experienced fluctuations of 5% to 100%. In some cases, the fluctuations resulted in lower usage as well as in higher usage and bills.

In a statement that accompanied the OCP report, Berliner said the report “confirms a need for a fair and independent forum for consumers to challenge WSSC bills.”

OCP said that the batch of complaints is the largest it’s received in 30 years. Some who complained have claimed the higher than usual water usage readings continued after leaks were ruled out.

“As it stands, WSSC is the sole arbiter of whether a bill is correct,” Berliner said in a statement. “Consumers are clearly at a disadvantage and this needs to change. Accordingly, I will be working with our state delegation in the months ahead to create a fair and independent forum that will better serve our County’s ratepayers.”

A WSSC spokesperson said the utility must review the report before making any comment.

The OCP report said “it appears that WSSC does not ‘report’ to any independent review body with regard to billing disputes and related issues:”

While the extent to which these consumer complaints regarding high water bills may or may not be related to inaccurate meter reading by WSSC, the lack of more sophisticated “drive-by” electronic meter reading technology as employed by other local water jurisdictions gives the appearance that WSSC’s meter reading infrastructure and capabilities are antiquated by comparison and therefore potentially subject to inaccurate readings.

WSSC appears to maintain extensive and detailed documentation regarding many operational issues. Further inquiry may be needed by an independent reviewer with specialized utility expertise in order to shed any additional light regarding these high water bill complaints and related issues.

PDF: Berliner-Office of Consumer Protection report on WSSC billing complaints