Council considers charter amendment to end BWS back-billing

Published On: Oct 29 2013 06:59:47 PM HST   Updated On: Oct 29 2013 07:21:17 PM HST

After months of complaints from irate constituents about Board of Water Supply billing practices, the Honolulu's City Council's Committee on Executive Matters and Legal Affairs approved a resolution Tuesday that would ask voters whether back-billing by BWS should end.

Click here to watch Andrew Pereira's report.

The Charter amendment placed before voters in November of 2014 would read as follows: "Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to prohibit the rate and charge-setting power of the Board of Water Supply from being used to establish retroactive billing practices?"

In a hearing before the Council's Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee on Tuesday, BWS Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau said the resolution could have unintended consequences and an audit of the semi-autonomous agency would better serve taxpayers. A resolution authorizing the audit was approved by the council earlier this month.

"An audit will provide the opportunity to review our current billing practices, water rates and policies and procedures," said Lau.

However, committee members also heard from the daughter of an elderly couple whose water bill reached more than $7,000 after BWS recalculated how much water was actually used in their Ft. Shafter home. Virgie Jariba said her parents, Melecio and Lorenza Cuaresma, live on a fixed income and normally pay around $200 a month for their water.

"He's been calling me and he's under emotional stress because the big bills came at one time," Jariba said about her dad.  

Lau said the Cuaresma high retroactive billing was due to an underground water leak, a leak that may have been detected if the couple's water meter was actually read by BWS.

"They would've seen the bill climb and spike up and could've taken appropriate action to call a plumber or have somebody come over and fix their piping," said Lau. What we're doing is charging for water used. So, the recalculation is based on actual meter readings."

A BWS investigator determined the Cuaresmas were experiencing a six gallon per minute leak on their property, which amounts to more than 8,000 gallons of water per day. BWS is currently working with the couple on a possible bill adjustment.  

Meanwhile, BWS released statistics during the committee hearing that showed 94,000 customers received estimated bills in March. Of those, 89 percent were under estimated, meaning customers really owed more. From January through September, 235,253 customers received estimated bills, with 186,198 being undercharged. BWS says it would have lost $3.89 million in revenue if water bills from January through October had not been readjusted.  

Lau said the large number of estimated bills since the start of the year was the result of new billing software, a switch to monthly billing for residential customers and deferred maintenance on water meters that can be read by radio frequency. He said about 3 percent of all BWS customers are now receiving estimated bills, and bills are estimated for a maximum of three consecutive months before an internal review begins.

Lau promised to update the City Council on changes to the BWS billing system ahead of the agency's audit, which could be released sometime in the spring.

Although the Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee voted 9-0 to move the BWS ballot question forward to a public hearing and second reading, Chairman Ron Menor warned that banning retroactive billing could be difficult for the city to undue. He added that the council should approach the matter cautiously.  


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