Boil-water notice lifted; now for 2nd time in 3 months, New Orleans residents, officials seek answers to complex problem _lowres (copy)

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Headquarters of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board.

Almost 5,000 Sewerage & Water Board customers were double-billed in recent months in an error that officials blame, in part, on staffing problems.

The erroneous bills compound the ongoing problems at the S&WB, which has come under heavy criticism because of false statements made by its top officials after the Aug. 5 flood in New Orleans. And they come on top of persistent complaints about the billing system used by the utility and the accuracy of its monthly charges.

About 4,700 customers — roughly 3.5 percent of all S&WB accounts — were essentially charged double for the same month of service: once based on an estimate of how much water and sewer service they used and another based on an actual meter reading.

Officials do not yet know how much the overcharges amount to.

The S&WB often relies on estimates when determining how much to bill, something that Erin Burns, a spokeswoman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said is caused by “a shortage of meter reading personnel and a high turnover rate in the department,” which prevent the utility from having enough staff to read each meter every month.

For the thousands of customers affected by the overbilling, an estimated bill was entered into the system just before the meter was read, leading to a double bill, Burns said in an email.

Notifications are being sent out to those customers who have been identified, and anyone with a question about their bill can call the S&WB at (504) 529-2837. The accounts where problems have been identified will be corrected this month, Burns said.

Residents can tell if they were affected by the problem because both estimated and actual readings appeared on their bills, she said.

“For customers that were double billed in error, the erroneous amounts will be removed from the account, the accounts will not be turned off for non-payment, and no late payment penalties will be applied,” Burns said. “Customers who have a remaining balance that is difficult to pay may call the S&WB and set up a payment plan.”

With the S&WB in turmoil over revelations of pumps and turbines that were offline for maintenance and staffing woes that left some stations unattended during the Aug. 5 flood, Landrieu cleaned house, forcing out the agency's top officials. Since then, his office has been handling public comments for the utility, which is a public agency run by a board appointed by the mayor.

“Currently, each affected account is being manually reviewed to determine the correct bill amount, and the total has yet to be determined,” Burns said.

No other widespread billing issues have been identified at this point, she said.

In the short term, the S&WB plans to change its meter-reading schedule in hopes of avoiding similar problems in the future, Burns said. A long-term fix would rely on automated meters under a proposal that is expected to go before the S&WB's governing board in January and to be implemented by the end of next year, she said.

The double-billing issue is in addition to ongoing complaints over the agency's billing that only increased after it switched to a new electronic system last year. That changeover temporarily resulted in customers unable to access or pay their bills and multiple other problems.

Other S&WB billing issues have long been a source of grievances, with customers questioning high bills, tussling with the utility over whether they were responsible for leaks, and other problems.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​