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PWSA ‘overwhelmed’ by volume of complaints about inaccurate bills

Bob Bauder

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority in 2014 promised a new $9.4 million electronic meter reading system would provide accurate and real-time billing information to customers.

But the system in many cases didn’t “talk” to the authority’s new billing software, according to acting Executive Director David Donahoe, who appeared before Pittsburgh City Council on Monday during a public meeting.

The result: nearly 50,000 inaccurate bills, said Councilwoman Deb Gross of Highland Park, who serves on the PWSA board of directors.

“The marriage of the reading and the billing systems did not go well in all cases,” said Donahoe, who was appointed March 3 to head PWSA after the resignation of Executive Director Jim Good. “Our goal is to get this marriage working as soon as we can possibly do that.”

Donahoe said a major problem is that Pittsburgh homes are equipped with a variety of old water meters of different makes, models and operations. Sewer bills are based on water usage. PWSA employees and a consulting team are working to make electronic readers communicate with the water meters and billing.

Work is about 99 percent complete for 70,500 affected residential customers and about 60 percent complete for 9,600 commercial customers, Donahoe said. Inaccurate billing has dropped from about 50 percent to 3 percent, said Paul Leger, Pittsburgh’s finance director and a PWSA board member.

The Tribune-Review reported last month that PWSA had $32.3 million in delinquent bills.

Council members said they continue to field complaints from frustrated water customers.

One woman told Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak’s office that she couldn’t afford Christmas gifts last year because of high water bills. A North Side man told Councilwoman Darlene Harris of Spring Hill that he cashed in his retirement savings to pay his PWSA bill.

“These are complaints just from our office alone,” said Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith of Westwood, waving a stack of papers several inches thick. “It’s a huge stack. I don’t understand what the problem is.”

Rudiak of Carrick estimated that her office staff spent two weeks in total work time over the past year dealing with complaints of rude treatment by PWSA employees, inconsistent answers to the same question, dismissive attitudes and excessive phone call hold time. Donahoe blamed the poor customer service on the billing issue. He said telephone operators were overwhelmed by the volume of calls and could not give accurate information because of incorrect meter readings.

“I have told everyone who works at the authority that they have to treat the public with the respect they deserve,” he said.

Council members said complaints about utilities and other city authorities are rare.

“I think the fundamental question is we have never been able to get to the kernel of what makes PWSA so different than all these other authorities,” Rudiak said.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or [email protected].


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