NEW ORLEANS – On Tuesday, the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans (SWBNO) announced an aggressive plan to improve its meter-reading capabilities and reduce its reliance on estimated bills as it gradually returns to its regular operations.
“We use estimates when we can’t get to every meter, whether because of bad weather or, in this case, because of the impact of COVID-19 on our meter-reading workforce,” Executive Director Ghassan Korban said. “But we understand that estimated bills can be a source of frustration for our customers. Our eventual goal is to only use estimates as a last resort so that we can improve our customers’ confidence they are receiving accurate bills.”
The COVID-19 pandemic greatly reduced the Meter Reading Department staff as employees tested positive and their colleagues had to quarantine. After the emergency declaration, the workforce was down to 20 active meter readers. Routes and recruiting for vacancies were suspended to slow the rate of infection in this department.
These safety efforts were successful, but also resulted in more than 40 percent of customer bills to be estimated on average from March through May.
The most impactful short-term remedy to reduce the frequency of estimates is to build a larger staff in this crucial division until we can automate the meter-reading process – as funding allows – over the next several years.
Rebuilding Meter-Reading Team
The SWBNO team has set as its goal a return to its pre-COVID emergency estimation rate – less than 20 percent of all bills – by Aug. 1. It will do so by:
- Aggressively filling the 10 existing vacancies in the meter-reading workforce. Skype interviews with candidates began May 26. Individuals interested can apply for jobs here. The Civil Service job title for a meter reader is “Water Service Inspector I.”
- Opening 10 new meter-reading positions for applicants. Once filled, these additional positions will bring the total meter-reading staff to 92, including 60 front-line meter readers, and result in more meters read each month.
- Establishing a new notification process for customers who receive an estimate because SWBNO flagged an irregular charge on their account. The Billing Team is exploring options for on-bill notices or separate letters to accompany estimated bills.
- Exploring with Civil Service an incentive program for meter readers to improve our retention rates in this department.
Tips for Understanding Estimates
“Should you receive an estimated bill, please be aware that it uses a formula built to best predict how much water you use based on what you used previously. If previous rates of water use are unavailable, the estimate will be based on the typical average use for residential properties of 170 gallons a day. Estimations are standard practice in every city and across all American water utilities.
We correct estimates in the next bill that is generated from an actual read of your meter. If your previous estimate or estimates were high, we will credit your account. But if your estimate or estimates were low, we will add the difference to your current bill. In the latter case, this can cause your bill to appear higher than normal.
We understand many customers have concerns that their estimates may be high. Bad weather and staff shortages can prevent us from reading meters on our normal schedule. Therefore, some billing cycles may be longer than others. The longer your billing cycle, the more days are charged on your bill. You can see this in the top bar across your bill under the header “Days of Use.” Additional days beyond the typical 30 days of a billing cycle will contribute to your bill appearing higher than normal.”