By CARL SMITH
Starkville Electric Department officials say numerous customers’ water bills were either under or overcharged for the past few months due to an error by a contracted meter-reading company.
SED General Manager Terry Kemp said incorrect readings were recorded by Pontotoc-based North Mississippi Utility Services. Calls to a company spokesperson provided by Kemp went unanswered as of press time.
Although Kemp said the error was made by the contracted company, Starkville residents who were undercharged will have to pay for the water they used as opposed to the amount they were charged. Kemp said the undercharged accounts roughly average $40 for water usage during the erroneous readings’ time frame, while the highest cumulative adjustments cross the $100 threshold. North Mississippi Utility Services will not receive payment for work conducted when the erroneous readings were recorded, Kemp said.
“We’re looking at details right now, but they were not paid for any of the readings we’re talking about right now. The problem of (water services) collection really comes back to (SED). From a state law perspective, there’s just no way we can give away services. The customers did use the water, and we’re now collecting for it,” Kemp said. “In this situation, you might have someone typically paying $30 for usage, but the actual usage was over $40. The number of affected customers is a small percentage compared to the total number we service, but any number is too large. Once we identified the problem, we shifted meter readers around. We’re taking this situation very seriously.”
Katie Gent, SED manager of offices, said about 90 notices were hand-delivered by the department to affected homes. It was unclear how many accounts were undercharged and overcharged at press time.
Gent, who was listed as a billing contact on the letter, said payment schedules are available to customers.
“The (customers) I’ve spoken with want to know what the problem was, how long it was going on and the amount of their bill,” Gent said. “Most people I’ve spoken with have been understanding of the situation.”
“Our intent with the letters was to make our customers aware of the problem so no one was surprised (if their water bill reflected a cumulative-use charge),” Kemp said. “If anyone has any questions about the error or their bill, they can come talk to us. We’ll walk them through the issue.”
Since the issue emerged, Kemp said SED officials have taken precautions, including adjusting variance guideline which could alert managers to billing irregularities, to ensure the problem does not happen again.
“This is not an acceptable occurrence. We will do everything in our power to ensure nothing like this will ever happen again,” Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said. “It’s a grievous error by the company we contract with. City Attorney Chris Latimer will be evaluating our options with the company under the terms of our contract.”