Roughly one-fifth of Lake Helen residents have been paying a base water bill of around $74 per quarter for the past 18 months — instead of what they really owed — because of malfunctioning water meters.
“We have about 300 water meters that are not functioning and haven’t functioned for perhaps 18 months to two years,” Lake Helen City Administrator Lee Evett told the City Commission Oct. 25. “Those individuals are being charged a minimum bill. So, we have no idea how much water they’re actually consuming. But you can rest assured a good deal of more than a minimum bill.”
The meter itself is probably working fine, Evett added, but city staff are unable to read the usage because there is no way to manually read the number.
“City staff” refers to Sefe Mendoza, acting Public Works director and currently the only permanent member of the Public Works Department. Two maintenance technicians were hired Oct. 14 to work as needed. Otherwise, Mendoza is the only person available to tend to the city’s approximately 1,500 water meters.
The issue with the meters came to light in a discussion about a recent break in a water main.
“This has been going on for over almost two years, and nobody said anything to us?” City Commissioner Kelly Frasca asked, with incredulity.
Evett found out in the beginning of October, he said, but every quarterly billing cycle, when those 300 meters showed a zero amount of water consumption, city staff was notified.
“OK, going forward, we need this fixed. But that is a lack of communication on a big part,” Frasca said, noting that residents should be aware they are paying a base fee, and may be shocked whenever the meters get back into operation and they find out what their real water use costs.
When that will be, however, is unclear.
The city has some replacement meters on hand, but understaffing in the Public Works Department has made it difficult to get them installed.
And there are only a few replacement meters, which is why Evett has requested that Biometric Utility, the service provider contracted with the city, send their crews to perform the installations. That proposal is still in the works.
The Lake Helen water system has had its fair share of problems. The meters in question are supposed to automatically radio the water-consumption numbers to more accurately record data, but a lack of analog interface with the meters has caused some problems.
Lake Helen also has an older water system, and former Public Works Director Ricky Mullen, who retired in September after 25 years with the city, took with him a wealth of information about unmarked water lines, among other things.
And, Lake Helen’s quarterly water billing system has occasionally led to exorbitant bills for residents who may have a leak at the beginning of their billing cycle, and not realize it for months.
One such event came to light this month.
“There is … a brand-new resident, who received a bill for just about a million gallons of water in a quarter,” Evett said. “And, to the best of my knowledge, he never complained to us or anybody else to investigate it. And when we did, he was leaking water at a rate of 500 gallons a minute, for about two months of the three months.”
Evett later clarified that the water leak was 500 gallons an hour, not a minute.
The gentleman paid his $6,000 water bill, Evett said, and fixed the leak.