Snap a photo, ping the location, move onto the next home.
The city of Shreveport has implemented a new method to keep track of water meters readings, and officials believe it’s fail proof. The goal is to ensure customers aren't being over charged for their water bills.
"They’ll pull out their device, enter into the account 253 gallons (for example) then the system will prompt them to take a photo of the dial,” said Ben Riggs, communications director for the Mayor’s office.
Rather than just plugging the information manually, the smart phone meter reader will instantly upload, then auditors will check to make sure the reading is correct. If anything appears suspicious, an analyst can call for a second read immediately. If the customer disputes the charges, they can contact the Water and Sewage Department and request a photo of their dial or have the city review it.
"The inspector will wipe it and get a clear photo of the dial. That photo will be pinged so the location will be uploaded along with the photo and the manual read into the system so an analyst can immediately look at that information and make sure everything checks out,” added Riggs.
Shreveport resident Laura Schlidt says she’s had issues with her water bill in the past, during months she wasn’t even in town, her bill would be triple.
“It’s sometimes more with no explanation, during times when I haven’t been here for the whole month or there was only one person in the house. I know I’m not using $120 worth of water during one period,” she adds.
If the meter reader comes to a home with a car parked over it, they'd select an option on the smart phone that clarifies a car is blocking the read. Then, snap a photo of the car and move onto the next home. There is no penalty for the homeowner.
"They cannot close that account and move onto the next home until they've uploaded a picture, it is a fail proof system."
But it wasn't so fail proof before. Shreveport residents for years have been plagued by inaccurate water bills. Much of the blame went to the meter readers. But there were also problems with the computerized billing system and electronic meter-reading system that didn't work.
The extent of the errors surfaced in 2015 when a Shreveport businessman found the city was under billing heavy water users by at least $1 million. He brought it to the attention of former mayor Ollie Tyler’s administration and also asked for a percentage of the extra money the city would receive.
Tyler said no and that landed the controversy in court, until January when a judge upheld the city's right to correct the water-billing problems without paying a finder's fee to the businessman.
Most recently, water bill complaints are actually about the sewage fee that's tacked on, not water usage, Riggs said.
The sewage fee is part of a consent decree that is federally mandated.
The ongoing billion dollar water and sewage project is the largest infrastructure project in the city's history.
"That’s why the sewage rates continue to creep up. Those have been scheduled in for years,” added Riggs.
According to an audit, the city reads about 81,000 meters a month. Riggs says the new technology, which was initiated under former Mayor Tyler's administration, is more efficient and people are noticing, considering how much time we all spend on our smart devices.
"Smart phone technology is something everyone is familiar with. When you think about training, they're already comfortable with that technology because they are carrying one in their pocket for personal use."
“I’m grateful we’re doing this, it’s a technology component we can use to make sure our bills are accurate…it’s nice to know you can call and get documentation that it is correct,” added Schlidt.
Next month, the city is rolling out a new water billing system. The previous one produced a static PDF document that couldn't be sorted or edited. The new one will improve statement accuracy. There will be a two to three day period during the transition when customers will not have access to their online accounts, so keep that in mind.