Customers should be able to appeal high bills, task force says !


CORNELIUS, N.C. — Three months after launching an investigation into water bill complaints, a 12-person task force issued its findings Monday, along with two-dozen recommendations for improving customer service and billing at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities.

“We think CMU needs to change its approach to customers,” said Jim Duke, who led the committee of utility customers in examining water rates, policies, and billing services.

Duke said the department appears to be too focused on “who caused the problem instead of what caused the problem.”

Hundreds of water customers have contacted NewsChannel 36 in recent months after receiving unusually expensive water bills. In most cases, the customers have said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities insisted there was a leak inside the customer’s home.

Duke said the task force found leaks in private plumbing often are the culprit behind higher-than-normal water bills.

But in about 6% of high bill complaints, electronic transmitters which relay data from a customer’s water meter to a billing computer are malfunctioning, according to the task force’s findings.

The number is similar to the results of about 1,000 high bill investigations completed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities in January and February. Of those cases, utilities spokesperson Vic Simpson said about 7% of the bills were found to be inaccurate.

Inspectors receive an average of about 500 billing complaints each month, Simpson said, a number that has been higher amid additional media coverage on utility issues.

In the vast majority of complaints, inspectors find the electronic transmitters and related equipment are functioning properly, he said.

Utilities officials have said more than 99% of the 260,000 bills sent out each month are accurate.

Duke said customers should have the ability to appeal their bill to an independent, third-party arbitrator.

David Trotter, a Ballantyne resident who received a $355 water bill in January, said he agreed with the task force’s findings on the need for an appeals process.

While an inspector found the electronic transmitter attached to Trotter’s meter was malfunctioning, the diagnosis did not fully explain a charge for what Trotter said is 10-times his normal bill for January.

“I don’t see an escalation path at all,” Trotter said in an interview Monday evening. “I don’t know who to call or who to write really to ask that someone look into my problem with a little bit more authority, higher authority than folks who have looked into it so far.”

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