Besieged by complaints about water bills, Mayor Marion Barry recently gave a committee of city administrators 90 days to eliminate the bugs in the computer system and untangle the red tape that has plagued D.C. homeowners for the past three years.
With the deadline set by Barry rapidly approaching, members of the six-person committee said this week that they have identified the computer system's problems and are ready to make the corrections. If they succeed, some city residents will get bills for the first time in three years while others may finally receive bills that are consistently accurate, rather than wildly fluctuating.
Ironically, the improvement may coincide with the city's announced plan to boost water and sewer rates by 30 percent on Oct. 1.
In other words, within the next several months, some District homeowners may open their water bills and wish that the city's computer was still broken.
Barry took the first steps to correct the District's water billing system last November when he hired a Dallas consulting firm to reorganize part of the billing procedures for the city's 120,000 accounts.
Then, he named the members of the planning committee two months ago to oversee the overhaul of the water billing process, which at one point found the city owed $12 million in back water and sewer charges.
While members of the committee say it can be done, they decline to predict when all district residents can expect accurate water bills from the city on a regular basis.
"Anyone who works with computers knows you can't name specific dates," said Enrique Jograj, the chairman of the water billing committee. Jograj is director of the revenue division of the Environmental Services Department.
"I can't even give you a ballpark figure. We just can't know for sure," he added.
Jograj's committee came up with 55 recommendations, and he said that 21 of these are short-term, to be implemented within the mayor's prescribed 90 days. About 90 percent of these recommendations deal with corrections to the computer system, Jograj said. For instance, engineers are devising a program that will detect unusually high bills and stop and check them before they go into the mail.
Jograj said that when the short-term recommendations are implemented, the system ought to be "about 90 percent efficient."
The other short-term recommendations are aimed at streamlining the procedures of the Department of Revenue and Finance.
"We have to learn to have more direct communications among ourselves," Jograj said. Another member of the committee, administrator Edward Gund, said that part of this process will involve adding four people to the department's staff of 15, and increasing the number of phones to handle complaints and questions about water bills.
While the mayor's committee grapples with righting the system, seven City Council members said recently that their constituents are still receiving bills that are too high, or aren't receiving bills at all.
"Just today, I got a call from a church that got a bill for $4,600, and they say that is about $1,500 over their usual bills," said Council Member John Ray (D-At Large). "Over here, we are still getting complaints."
Council Member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) said that last month her household received a bill that was "way too high" and that her husband filed a complaint.
But, she added, "They came over and checked out our meter and said we had a small leak. That's better than it used to be when you couldn't even get through" to the revenue department.
"Improvements are under way," said Gund, citing quick responses to water billing problems like Rolark's.
Jograj agreed: "It's not as good as I'd like it to be, but it's a hell of a lot better than it use to be."
"The short term changes won't be a cure-all for the operation," Gund said, "but they will bring us closer to fixing the system."
Gund added that most of the revenue department's complaints now come from customers who have had their water cut off for delinquency in paying their bills, a deliberate action also intended to rationalize water service.
"Under former mayor Walter Washington, there was an order given that water was not to be cut off. Mayor Barry has reversed that order," Gund said. "Right now, a lot of people are testing the system to see how far they can go before we turn off their water."
There are fewer and fewer complaints from people who are getting bills that are too high, Jograj said, adding, "If they are getting bills that are too large now, its because they are using a lot of water."