Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Carmel on the Case: Water Woes
Water bill disputes are common across South Florida and most water companies admit sometimes they have to just guess what homeowners owe. That's why some cities are giving water meters a makeover, but this new system could be coming at a hefty price to your pocketbook and your privacy. Investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero is On the Case.
WSVN -- At this racquetball court, the city of Fort Lauderdale says the homeowners association used 148,000 gallons of water in one month.
Vivian Fox: "This is just water that would feed the bathrooms and a water fountain."
Vivian and the homeowners association fought it, but the city said the meter was accurate and they had to pay.
Vivian Fox: "They can't prove we used the water. We can't prove that we didn't use the water. Where did the water go?"
In Miami, Roberta Schwartz also got a huge bill.
Roberta Schwartz: "All of the sudden, one day I get the water bill for $466 and change, which is a lot bigger than a normal water bill."
The city claims the bill was accurate, but Roberta wonders if they could even find her meter because a gardener had buried it.
Roberta Schwartz: "It's impossible, there were no holes in the ground there, there was nothing moved, the grass and the dirt was exactly the same as it was. How they could have read it? I don't know."
Most water meters in South Florida are underground. Meter readers often have to dig through dirt to uncover them and some cities admit locked gates and barking dogs make reading the meters impossible.
Braulio Rosa: "We basically have to guesstimate what the cost is."
That's why many local governments are now looking for more accurate high tech systems.
Braulio Rosa: "As a vehicle drives by one of our utilities vehicles, it will basically send a little trigger to that meter and it will send data back and it will be able to quickly upload onto the computer."
The town of Davie is putting in digital meters. North Miami Beach is also looking to go digital.
Mark Perkins: "We use a radio frequency that goes from the actual meter itself and It goes to a collection unit then that information is sent to us by the web."
Carmel Cafiero: "But all those high tech gadgets come at a price. North Miami says it will cost about ten million dollars to install new meters across the city and it's the customers who will have to pay."
Charlie Beck: "We've seen some very large increases lately."
Charlie Beck works with a consumer advocate group. He says in one case, a utility asked for a 100 percent rate increase to cover the cost of these high tech meters, but some consumers are worried less about the high price and more about the invasion into their privacy.
Jon Deck: "Here we're getting instant reads every hour on the hour."
The system North Miami Beach is looking to install will tell the city every hour how much water your house is using. That means, workers could see when you're using a lot of water like for watering your lawn, which could be a problem if you're watering during a ban.
Charlie Beck: "Yes, that is a lot of additional information about a person's lifestyle and habits."
But officials say these new systems are not about spying on people they're about getting more accurate bills, and maybe even saving water because the city will be able to detect and notify you if your water consumption suddenly goes up.
Jon Deck: "Right now, if you have a leak it might be three months before you noticed it and you got your bill. Whereas right now, within two days time I have a postcard in the mail telling you, you have possible leak."
And they say saving water is a win for everyone.
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