Customers meet one-on-one with FATHOM president
By LYNETTE SOWELL
It was standing-room only at the start of Tuesday night’s Copperas Cove city council meeting, with a large portion of the audience present to hear from one individual: Jason Bethke, president of FATHOM Water Systems. Many had folders of information, some with water bills in hand.
At the start of the meeting, Copperas Cove City Manager Andrea Gardner addressed the room to talk about Bethke’s purpose for being at the meeting—to provide the council with an update on a capital improvement project, that of transitioning city utility customers’ meters to digital meters and also taking over management of the city utility accounts.
“However, many of you came to the last council meeting and expressed some concerns with billing. It was my understanding in talking with several council members today that many of you are here to have your voice heard. Unfortunately, on the regular agenda under staff reports, there is not an opportunity for that,” Gardner said, at which some in the group murmured. “Hold with me a minute—I have asked Jason Bethke if he would be kind enough to visit with those citizens that are here to express their concerns about their utility bills, and he agreed. He is not trying to hide from this community and that is why he is here tonight.”
During citizens’ forum, one resident, David Smith, spoke out about his and other customers’ feelings regarding the handling of the accounts and their issues with the meter reporting. He questioned if the city has had a third party verify the meter accuracy.
“It’s getting down to the point where some things are actually going to start happening, and those are going to be recalls, class action lawsuits, and criminal investigations. This is getting ridiculous,” Smith said, to which a number of those assembled applauded.
Bethke: Equipment failure led to summer billing issues
In his report to the council, Bethke also addressed an issue which occurred during June, July and August with billing services, an issue which affected 1,500 customers, or a little more than 10 percent of account holders.
“We had a piece of equipment fail. We did a workaround to try to make sure that the bills came out in a timely way. That workaround worked for the vast majority of the community, but that failed to get the results we anticipated for about 1,500 homes across the community.”
What occurred after that was that the reading on July 8 became the read for bills in July and August, Bethke said, which made a slightly higher June bill and a slightly lower July bill.
But for others who were a couple of cycles later in the cycle, Bethke said those bills reflected 10 days of consumption in July and 50 days billed in August—the right 60 days, but the bills that read for 30 days of consumption were actually 50 days of consumption.
Bethke said that he would have information put together for the city council and city staff to show in more detail how that occurred.
One of the issues was that Bethke said it was a manual process and they’d done a “root cause analysis” to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again. He also addressed the safety protocols for the company’s billing website and the checks and audits performed to ensure safety. He said they are also continuing to improve the web and app so customers can track their usage.
“My hope is we can have a very constructive conversation around how we can make this better, how we can continue to make our service better to serve you better, and how we can ensure the city is successful in this project and ultimately becomes more sustainable and finds good ways to use the data,” said Bethke.
Council questions and comments
Council members reacted to the explanation and report with calls for a resolution and better communication.
“I don’t understand an anomaly of a normal 8,000 gallons with spikes in usage, not to 50,000, but by 50,000. Let’s get some kind of a resolution,” said councilman George Duncan, adding that these billing concerns might not seem serious to some, but to those customers, it’s the “most serious thing in their life right now” and it was absolutely necessary to get a resolution.
Councilman David Morris brought questions from customers who could not be present that evening, and gave one example of a utility customer who is being billed for water, yet they have a well and a septic system, and another case of two next-door neighbors who have the other neighbor’s meter installed at their home.
Councilman Dan Yancey called for an after-action report from the city and FATHOM to contain a list of situations and what was done to take care of the problem.
“It’s extremely important,” Yancey said. “Quite frankly, my bill is kind of weird too and I ‘d like to get to the bottom of it.”
Joe Brown, deputy city manager, said that FATHOM has begun providing weekly reports, which are now included as information items on the city’s website, which are located under “City Council” and then “Information Items.”
James Pierce Jr. asked if there was any type of notification made to the city that there was the outage, to which Bethke replied there was no notification.
“We should have been able to see this coming and get the communication out – we dropped the ball,” said Bethke, again attributing the summer billing issue to using a manual process, something that he has instructed not to be used again.
After the report, account holders were able to meet with Bethke, along with a City of Copperas Cove staff member present as well in another room at the Information Technology building, while the council meeting continued in the chambers.
David Perry is a Copperas Cove utility customer who sat down one-on-one with Bethke to receive answers about his billing and water meter issues. He emerged with a few answers after Tuesday evening.
“In short, the GW Fathom president admitted that they did not communicate to the population very well that they were behind on reading the meters in April, June, and May and did some estimated reads based on formulas. In doing so, I love the bills for the month (we were) undercharged and a lot of us have received higher bills that if they were large enough to split between August and September. That accounted for the identical months and also two bills sent at the same time. We met with the City Water Manager at the meeting also, and we also had a previously scheduled meeting with him on Wednesday afternoon where he was able to explain in detail the process and the failure to get the city customers notified months ago.
“Also, my entire area is currently unable to be read wirelessly due to the receiver antenna for that part near Big Divide being obstructed by a water tower. We ourselves opted to pay both August and September on October 15. They will work with you, but in my mind, my water usage is plausible if I look at the low bills from April to June.”
Tom Nickson was also present, hoping to get some answers at the meeting. He said the previous month, his water usage was reported by the digital meter to be four times the usual.
“There’s only two of us and usually we’re averaging 14,000-16,000 gallons. They’ve alleged we used 61,500 gallons,” Nickson said. The bills he brought with him were 30-day bills, one of them from the July 22 through August 22 time period. He said he hoped to get it resolved and felt like the one bill is an erroneous bill, and he’d be happy to pay the average. He also expressed that he had talked to a customer service representative on August 25 about having someone check his meter, but that hasn’t happened yet.
At the end of the council meeting, the council concurred with councilman Jay Manning’s request that a 3rd party do a sampling audit of some of the water meters to test their accuracy.
UPDATE: Here is a link on the City of Copperas Cove website to the most recent information from FATHOM as of 9/18/2017: http://www.copperascovetx.gov/files/information_items/2017/09-18-17.pdf