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FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – After news broke that many residents in Fort St. John were experiencing issues with water meter transmitters and receiving high bills for ‘estimations’, City staff presented a report to Council on Monday with updates regarding the situation.

According to the City, water consumption has been going down ever since 2006 even with the population numbers going up each year. The City outlined 2006, 2011 and 2016 specifically in the report they presented on Monday. The numbers were as follows:

  • 2006 – 628 litres per capita
  • 2011 – 470 litres per capita
  • 2016 – 391 litres per capita
The City of Fort St. John says data shows that water usage is going down steadily throughout the years/Photo: City of Fort St. John

Back in 2006, Neptune meters was awarded the RFP (Request For Proposals) for installation of a remotely readable water meter system. However, just two years later, the City ended the agreement because they believed that ‘it became apparent that having our residents deal with a third party in Ontario for bill processing and payment was not acceptable.’

The City says that when the contract ended, around 92% of meters had been installed and the City installed the remaining 500 within the next year.

“These were the meters that Neptune had tried repeatedly to make appointments for, but were not successful in getting one for these residences or businesses. The bylaw was amended to include language around non-metered billing rates to encourage these installations. The installation project was completed by the City and we have been doing the billings and installation since approximately 2008.”

The City says that shortly after, meter transmitters began to fail and they took legal action to have the meters fixed properly.

“Unfortunately, shortly after that period, the meter transmitters began to fail. Virtually all of the version 1 transmitters have had to be replaced (over 6,000 transmitters). These transmitters should have had a 15 or 20 year life but started to fail in year three. The City addressed this issue through a legal process and settled with the company who provided us with an improved version of the transmitters under warranty.”

The meters still needed to be installed ‘in large numbers’ and that is when Council decided to put in a program where usage would be estimated.

“Council, knowing the difficulty of installing that many transmitters inside residents’ homes, put into place a program based on estimates, with the understanding that once actual consumption was known, the resident would receive a bill based on actual usage. The resident would either receive a credit if the estimate had been too high or a corrected invoice if the estimate had been too low.”

The City says that during this time, the meters themselves were still correctly measuring water that was being used, the data just wasn’t being transmitted.

Officials say that replacement of transmitters has been ‘challenging’. In the report on Monday, there were two reasons listed.

“Replacement of the transmitters has been a challenge for two reasons: the large number of transmitters needing replacement, combined with gaining access to people’s homes or businesses in order to install these transmitters. We have successfully installed thousands of new transmitters and are now basically left with the remaining properties that we have been unsuccessful in gaining access to, similar to the experience around the initial installation. The bylaw language was again amended late 2016 to strengthen the access for maintenance requirements to state that if access could not be achieved after a prescribed procedure then that account would be changed to a non-metered flat rate.

For the transmitters that have been repaired, the billing returns to billing based on actual usage, not on an estimated amount. The problem being the time period that the account had been estimated for. Staff have to go back through the history, ensure that the ownership had not changed and a reconciliation completed then, also address consumption in previous years that had to been billed at the previous rate, and other factors, making reconciliation of the estimated amounts time consuming and somewhat challenging. This reconciliation is currently about five to six months behind the transmitter replacement, with a concerted effort being made to close that gap.”

Over the past year, close to 750 transmitters were replaced and the City estimates that there are 400 left currently.

“The new language in the bylaw has dramatically improved the success rate in getting appointments in homes and businesses that previously have not made appointments. Since January when the new bylaw came into effect, 154 registered letters were sent out with only 37 not responding and being placed on the non-metered rate.”

Many residents have stated that when they did make appointments to have a meter repaired, City staff would not show up and no explanation was given. The City says that they have tried to contact many people and not received a response. They say they have been working on this task for the past five years.

“Prior to this change, staff have proactively phoned most of the over 6,000 account holders trying to schedule appointments, also on each bill that is sent out there is a highlighted section stating that this is an estimated amount requesting the client to please call 250-787- 8150 to book an appointment. One of the largest struggles that staff has had is actually locating a phone number for the property owner. Staff over the years have also gone to the property to try to set up an appointment and have left cards in the door requesting an appointment be scheduled. There has been a significant effort over the past five years trying to complete this task.”

The City says that they estimate that the remaining meters will be repaired within the next four months. They are targeting 100 appointments per month. They are also adding two three-month positions to help with appointments and reconciliation of outstanding accounts. The positions are going to be funded from the water and sewer account.

Over the past five months, the City has completed the following amount of reconciliations:

  • 232 were issued refunds totalling $152,315.64
  • 169 were issued catch-up bills totalling $117,299.27

City staff says they are committed to fixing ongoing issues that residents are experiencing over the next four months.

“Staff are making a concerted effort over the next four months to complete the replacement of the remaining transmitters and reconcile the accounts that remain, ensuring that those that have refunds due them will get them and those that used more water than was previously invoiced will be properly invoiced.”

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