WSSC customers challenging high water bills need arbiter beyond utility, report says

Utility customers in the Maryland suburbs who want to challenge high water bills need a way to dispute those charges outside the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, according to the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection.

The county agency began examining WSSC customer complaints in April, after County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said he had heard from about 50 residents whose winter water bills were so unusually high they believed they had to be wrong.

The 50 complaints were more than the county has received about WSSC bills over the past 30 years, according to a report by the consumer protection office sent to Berliner this week.

Customers were especially frustrated that they had no way to dispute the bills beyond using the WSSC’s own appeals process, the report said.

In most of the 50 cases, the WSSC said its bills were accurate, the report said. Possible explanations for the higher bills included increased water use by customers, leaks, improper meter readings by the WSSC and malfunctioning meters.

In some cases, bills showing an unusually high amount of water use were then followed by bills for normal usage.

“In many cases,” the report said, “the underlying cause of any spike in usage will remain a mystery.”

WSSC officials have said that some customers had unusually high bills this winter because heavy snow made it difficult to reach many meters, resulting in longer-than-usual billing cycles that covered up to 30 days of additional water usage. People who stayed home during snowstorms also likely used more water than usual by flushing toilets, running washing machines and operating dishwashers more often than had they been at work or in school, the utility said.

WSSC spokesman Jim Neustadt said Tuesday that the utility needed more time to analyze the report before commenting. Some customers might be seeing lower-than-usual bills now because this billing cycle is shorter for those who had longer winter billing cycles, he said.

WSSC customers can currently appeal bills through the utility’s “dispute resolving board,” made up of one WSSC employee and two appointed customers, according to the WSSC’s Web site. The board’s decision is considered final.

Berliner said he plans to work with the county’s General Assembly delegation to establish a “fair and independent” forum through which WSSC customers can challenge their bills.

The WSSC provides water and sewer services to nearly 2 million people in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Also according to the report, the utility “gives the appearance” that its meter-reading technology is “antiquated” and more vulnerable to inaccurate readings compared with other local water utilities.

The report noted that the WSSC relies on older technology that requires meters to be read manually. Other local water utilities use more “sophisticated” technology that allows automated readings done as workers drive by, it said.

The WSSC plans to implement an automated meter reading system in fiscal 2019 at an estimated cost of $90 million, a spokesman said. The utility will begin updating its technology infrastructure to accommodate that in the fiscal year starting July 1.

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Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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