by Calvin Ishee

The first story began last week with contact from a Pass Christian resident Richard Douglas, regarding a problem he was having correcting a potential billing error with the Pass Christian Water Billing Department. Douglas expressed his water bill in December 2018 was less than $40, however his December 2019 water bill was $150.00.

Following this, Douglas went through the process of calling the city, then reaching out to the newspaper due to his lack of satisfaction of the city’s response.

The second story, began with an investigative process where the newspaper reached out to Pass Christian City Officials.  City Attorney Malcolm Jones called after Mayor Leo “Chipper” McDermott delivered the message of the newspaper’s questions.  Jones stated that “the City was aware of this and other billing problems and was working to get them resolved as soon as possible.”  Additionally, Jones noted that “the City had received about 10 customer complaints and would be working to fix them in the coming weeks”.  He added, “the December water meter readings were taken by Wastewater Plant Service Company (WPSCO) personnel and that obviously mistakes had been made”.  Finally Jones said that Douglas would not need to send a letter requesting an adjustment, that the City would make the adjustment accordingly.

So far so good, right? But the second story changed when Jones received “additional“ information from the PC Water Billing Department that now required Douglas to write a letter to the Pass Christian Board of Alderman seeking a bill adjustment.

Going back to the first story, Douglas drafted and hand delivered a letter, as directed by the City, directly to City Hall outlining his reasons for his water bill adjustment request, 11 months prior his monthly water bill averaged $49.08, he manually checked his water meter, discovered no leaks either inside or outside of his house, etc.

After this, Douglas received a call from Pass Christian Mayor Leo “Chipper” McDermott whereby Douglas explained his problem and told the Mayor that he had asked the Gazebo Gazette to look into this matter.  According to Douglas, the Mayor allegedly retorted, “if the Gazebo Gazette was interested in running the water department, they’re welcome to”.    

The Mayor then told him that the Board normally doesn’t like to make water bill adjustments and they may not approve this one either.

The third story is a tale involving WPSCO, according to WPSCO Operations Manager Kermit Anthony, had been successfully running the Pass Christian Water Billing Department for nearly two decades. Anthony stated that they’d  been trying to work out a new contract with the City since January 2019. However, when they hadn’t heard back from the City by December 1st of 2019, they notified the City that effective December 31st, they would no longer be running the City’s Water Billing Department.

Even though he admitted that his water meter readers did in fact complete Decembers meter readings, due to staffing shortages it was done so at great expense to his company. He further stated that with approximately 3,000 water meters to read every month, it wasn’t uncommon to have 10 complaints per month. Mathematically that’s a 99 percent success rate. He noted that common billing problems were the result of either leaks inside or outside of the house.

For example, a dripping water faucet or a constantly running toilet can greatly increase a customer’s water bill. He said that he’s always had a great working relationship with the City and would continue doing so in the future.

So that’s a tale of three stories, from three different points of view. Was there a billing error as originally thought?  Maybe. Could the City have handled it better? Probably. Is there a method of adjudicating an alleged water bill error? Definitely.

According to PC City Ordinance 640A there are primarily 6 valid reasons for adjusting a water bill and here’s a brief summary:  1.  Faulty water meters, 2. Errors by City Personnel (e.g. faulty meter reading), 3. Catastrophic events, 4.  Faulty underground pipes, 5. Any documented unexplained anomaly, 6. Any other good cause shown by the user and recommended by the a Utility Department Manager.

The ordinance further states, “A request for an adjustment shall be made by letter to the Utility Manager. Requests for adjustments shall be accompanied by receipted invoices or other adequate and sufficient documentation as determined by the Utility Manager. Any utility account holder may appeal any decision by the Utility Manager within thirty days of receipt of the decision. Upon such an appeal the Mayor shall have the authority to appoint a hearing officer to provide the utility account holder with an expeditious administrative due process hearing.”

In conclusion, the Pass Christian Water Billing Department has converted from being run by a contractor, WPSCO, to being run  “in-house” by City employees. As with most transitions customers may experience some “growing pains”.  When and if they occur, contact the Water Billing Department and follow the guidance set forth in the City Ordinance.