By Frank Lewis
In recent months, the Daily Times has received calls from citizens of Portsmouth that, since going to monthly utility billing, say their bills were less than what would have been equal to one-third of their regular quarterly bills. When the Times inquired about the possible discrepancies, Portsmouth City Manager Derek K. Allen said he would look into it.
After investigating the billing practices, Allen now says residents of the city of Portsmouth have been getting under-billed for their water service.
“I mentioned before that people have said that the water bills, the utility bills were low,” Allen said. “Then I was told by my staff that there was a math error. About four o’clock (p.m.) today we realized it’s a quite massive math error. So for the past five months everybody’s bills were about a third of what they should have been.”
Allen clarified he was talking about the water and sewer bill.
“There was a minimum charge they said was charged every quarter and that was to be split by thirds, so it doesn’t go up,” Allen said. “You’re just paying a third of your minimum charge every month. The staff cut the rates by a third, so the minimum bill didn’t change, but all the rates were lowered by two-thirds.”
Despite the rates being lowered by two-thirds, Allen said the city is not going to go back to residents to collect what is owed the city.
“We are going to send a letter out notifying everybody that we made a mistake and we hope (with) the summer of celebration, we’re just going to chalk it up to the celebration of our bicentennial,” Allen said. “Everybody got reduced water bills all summer. But that will be in a letter that explained what happened in the next utility bill.”
In light of the discovery of the billing discrepancies, in July Allen named Crystal Weghorst the new director of the newly-created Department of Utility Account Services. Prior to that the department that dealt with billing for water services was the Waterworks Office.
“It was painfully obvious that some of our staff didn’t understand how we were billing or what we were billing for,” Allen said in July. “That’s now Water, that’s Refuse and Trash. In addition we went to monthly billing and I’ve heard people say there’s something wrong because their bills are less than a third and there is a mathematical error in it so we are slightly under-billing and the decision is that we will change that when the new person goes in over there.”
Allen gave high praise to Waterworks department head Sam Sutherland in transitioning from quarterly to monthly billing. He said it took the department five months before they could send out monthly bills.
“There’s a math problem. The bills are wrong,” Allen continued. “I would say the bills are wrong in the customer’s favor. We’re not going to go back and try to collect that back. We’re going to fix it and go forward.”
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.
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