During the study session before the regular board meeting Tuesday night (Feb. 23), the Fort Smith Board of Directors has asked city officials to look at ways to help residents deal with large water leaks in a way that is fair, equitable and in compliance with state law.
The current Billing Adjustment Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) was presented to the Water and Sewer Advisory Committee on July 9, 2020, and went into effect in August 2020. Until 2020 there was no written, approved leak adjustment procedure for the employees to follow, said Utility Director Lance McAvoy. The city has about 28,000 residential customers.
“Over a period of time, staff adopted an unofficial adjustment procedure with no written policy or oversight. At times this would allow one, 100% adjustment on water and sewer, or two, 50% water and 100% sewer adjustments for leaks in a 12 month period,” McAvoy said.
The procedure requires full payment for water that passes through the water meter for all internal plumbing water leaks as well as requires the sewer charge. It also requires full payment for the water that passes through the water meter for all external water leaks (underground or otherwise not immediately detectable) and provides a sewer charge adjustment equivalent to the winter average water usage. McAvoy said large leaks were looked at on a case by case basis in order to do what was fair for citizens.
“And we wanted to keep it so there is an appeal process (on the decisions),” McAvoy said.
Director George Catsavis questioned the policy at a board meeting earlier in the year and asked for a discussion on water leaks that lead to an adjusted water bill as had been done in the past. At Tuesday’s meeting, he asked where the city needs to draw the line between city function and customer service.
McAvoy said there were 43 requests for leak adjustments in June, 29 in July, 67 in August, 74 in September, 46 in October, 22 in November, 25 in December and 96 in January.
Director Kevin Settle asked McAvoy do study the history of leaks and find a potential cap that, when a customer reaches it, a savings or adjustment would be made. This would help customers from having $500, $600 or $1,000 water bills in a month because of a leak that could devastate them financially.
He also said there needs to be something the city can do that will allow a resident to shut the water off to their house in times of emergency that does not interfere with the water meter.
There was also a request made to revamp the city’s Project Concern, a utility assistance program to provide relief to low-income customers who use utility services solely for residential purposes. Director André Good requested the city look into water line warranty options for residents enrolled in Project Concern. Catsavis also asked the city to consider some type of credit to customers who had to leave faucets dripping or slow stream to keep water pipes from freezing during the extreme winter weather Feb. 14-18.
City Administrator Carl Geffken said he believed the city could bring proposals to the board regarding help for water customers experiencing a leak, Project Concern and other water bill-related issues in March.