Maumee Residents Seek Solutions To Water Billing Problems

This photo illustrates the three components that comprise Maumee residential water meters. Water flows through the brass water meter, pictured near the top of the photo, and is registered by the gallon on the meter head (in blue), which sits on top of the brass meter. The telemetric unit, pictured in gray at the bottom of the photo, is the device that electronically relays the meter reading to the city’s utility billing department. The brightly colored battery in the telemetric unit, shown above in the cutaway of the node, has failed prematurely by the thousands throughout the city, causing an interruption in the transmission of the electronic water reading to the city’s utility billing department, resulting in repeated estimated quarterly bills until the battery is replaced and a manual reading is recorded. MIRROR PHOTO BY MIKE McCARTHY

BY MIKE McCARTHY | MIRROR EDITOR — The issue of the city of Maumee’s utility billing problems was the primary topic of the night during the October 17 meeting of Maumee City Council.

Thirty-two residents attended the meeting, and eight individuals publicly addressed the mayor and city council about their concerns regarding their recent water bills.

In the days leading up to the October 17 meeting, a social media post from a local television news station had solicited Maumee residents to show up at the meeting to demand answers from the city in response to reports of unusually high water bills received by some Maumee residents.

As a result, Maumee Mayor Richard Carr and members of the city administration were prepared to publicly address the water billing issue before the assembled residents. The mayor opened the meeting with a 34-minute summary of the events that have transpired over the past three years to negatively impact the city’s water situation.

The mayor explained that the water billing headaches started two years ago, when over 3,000 of the Mueller Systems telemetry nodes that had been installed in over 6,000 Maumee homes and businesses in 2013 started failing at a rapid pace. The batteries were supposed to last 10 to 20 years, but thousands started failing unexpectedly after only seven years.

As The Mirror reported in a front-page story on September 9, 2021, the mass failure of the batteries led to a huge backlog, which was further complicated by supply chain problems and limited access to residents’ homes due to public safety concerns perpetuated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The telemetric devices, or nodes, transmit each household’s water usage data to the city’s computer network for billing purposes; however, the actual brass water meter is the only equipment that is used to measure water consumption. 

“There was no evidence that any of our meters have failed,” said the mayor in reference to the brass meters. “In the complaints we have realized to date, not one tested meter has been found to be defective.”

The mayor added, “The failed batteries powered the telemetric unit. When the telemetric unit does not have power, it cannot transmit usage to our billing department; however, the meter continues to record actual usage and all meter readings are accurate.”

The mayor then deferred to Maumee Finance Director Jennifer Harkey, who presented a brief program on how water is measured.

Harkey held up a brass meter and a node for the audience to see. She pointed to the brass meter and said, “This moves when water flows through it, and that is the only way it moves. 

“From there, it is recorded on the meter head, so accurately recording consumption has never been the problem,” Harkey continued. “It’s the electronic transmission of the reading to our meter reading system and then, ultimately, to our utility billing system. That is where the failure has taken place.”

Harkey continued her presentation by answering the following questions:

Q: What happens when the meter reading is not transmitted?

A: “If we are unable to obtain an electronic read, then we estimate that read based upon the previous year in the same quarter.”

Q: What happens when the batteries are replaced?

A: “When the batteries are replaced, we get an actual read versus an estimated read. Sometimes, if it is underestimated, then the resident will receive a large, what we call ‘catch-up’ bill. If it is underestimated, then (water customers) haven’t paid as much as they had been consuming before.

“That’s where I think a lot of our issues are, and why a lot of you may be here tonight. For as many bills that were underestimated, we have more that were overestimated, so those people have a large credit balance. When we get the actual read, it’s much lower than we estimated. We have quite a few people with very large credit balances sitting in their accounts.”

Q: What can a customer do if they have a “catch-up” bill? 

A: “We encourage them to call or email the utility billing office. Our supervisor is here tonight, and he is doing a wonderful job and is very responsive. He does offer payment options for ‘catch-up’ bills.”

Q: Can’t the city just forgive bills when there is a hardship?

A: “No, we can’t, unfortunately. Water was consumed, so the resident is responsible for the consumption. In addition to a potential payment plan, we can direct the resident to a list of resources we have available to them, including local churches and a few other agencies. Those are available on the city’s website.”

Q: Where does the revenue go that is collected for water and sewer?

A: “All of the user fees that are collected for water and sewer stay in the water and sewer fund. It would be illegal to use those funds for anything else, such as roadways, police cruisers, etc. The funds have to stay for water and sewer operating costs.”

Harkey then introduced Dustin Sauder, the city’s assistant water superintendent, who gave a brief presentation on the reliability of the city’s brass water meters.

Sauder explained how all of Maumee’s water meters have passed a thorough testing process, adhering to the strict standards set by the American Water Works Association (AWWA).

“Every meter that the city has in service has a nutating disc inside the brass meter,” Sauder explained. “Water has to pass through that disc in order to turn the head. It is magnetically driven. After the nutating disc is spun, it moves that head.”

Sauder said that if residents suspect that their meters are faulty, they are welcome to contact the city water department and request that their water meter be temporarily removed from their house, transported to the water department and undergo bench testing outlined by the AWWA standards.

If the meter fails the test, the city will replace it and issue a credit. If the meter does not fail the test, the consumer will be billed $150 for the service.

“In my 19 years of doing this, I have tested thousands of meters and have yet to see one ever speed up,” said Sauder. “It’s more likely that they would slow down. Those moving parts wear out. It’s actually in the citizens’ favor as time goes on when these parts slowly wear down.”

If a resident has their meter tested and it fails to calibrate within the 3-percent threshold, the meter will be replaced with a new one and that advantage would be lost, Sauder cautioned.

Carr resumed his remarks after the presentation by Harkey and Sauder.

He explained that because of the mass battery failure, the subsequent replacement battery shortage and the COVID-19 safety precautions that prevented water department employees from visiting homes and replacing what few batteries were in stock, estimated water bills were sent out “for a longer period of time than what would have been the case if it were not for the pandemic.”

“As batteries became available and it was safe to install them, sewer bills for actual use were sent to our residents and businesses,” the mayor stated. “As Jennifer stated, some of these were ‘catch-up’ bills based upon previously underestimated bills.

“It was at that time that council unanimously approved providing for a payment plan, which gave an extended period of time for residents to catch up with their bills without penalties or interest,’’ the mayor said.

“The city of Maumee does not have the legal authority to waive the payment of water and sewer bills,” the mayor continued. “Like every municipality in our state, the city is audited every year, and waiver of payments would be fully disclosed, which could result in criminal penalties or our employees having to pay civil penalties to make up for any waiver they gave.

“The city of Maumee has 6,355 water/sewer accounts. Today, only 41 accounts are on the ‘catch-up’ payment plan. That is just slightly over one-half of 1 percent of all our accounts,” the mayor stated.

“While we strive to assist residents who were impacted by the ‘catch-up’ bills, that did not mean that those residents could go several months without making any payments, which in some cases occurred. There were a few of our residents who failed to make any payments for several months,” Carr revealed.

“The city of Maumee has to pay for every gallon of water we purchase from the city of Toledo, and the city of Maumee has to pay for every gallon of sewage we send to the Lucas County Sewer District to be treated. We are required to bill our residents and businesses for water and sewer usage.”

Carr also addressed the issue of minimum quarterly bills. “The minimum billing amount is not a new policy in the city of Maumee,” he said. “Today, our minimum charge is based on 6,000 gallons per quarter. This policy in our city goes back to at least 1964. From 1982 through January 1, 2020, there was a minimum billing policy for both water and sewer which began at 8,000 gallons of water per quarter, which is more than what we have now.

“In January 2020, we suspended it, and subsequently we put it back in place because the charges we have to pay for water from the city of Toledo, and to pay the Lucas County Sewer District to treat the sewage, were increased,” the mayor explained. 

“Some ask why there is a minimum billing policy,” the mayor continued. “I think it’s important to understand that each of us pays for water to be transported from the city of Toledo into the city of Maumee and then, eventually, into our homes.

“The city must maintain operation of all the pipes that transport water from the city of Toledo into our homes. If there is a break anywhere in the sewer system, our employees go out and fix it, regardless of the time of day,” said Carr.

“The Maumee sewer and water system is comprised of over 200 miles of pipes,” the mayor said. “To visualize this, the pipes would extend from Maumee all the way to Lexington, Kentucky. We have to maintain those pipes and, at times, replace or repair them. Some of the pipes we have in our system right now date back to 1908. Regardless of how much water you use, if there is a breakdown, our employees come out to fix it.”

“I compare this analogy to the 911 system, where you pay taxes regardless of whether you use it. If you need 911, then it is there for you,” the mayor said. “You probably never had a water break, but if you do, the city will come out and fix it.”

Carr reported that the city’s cost to provide water and sewer service to residences and businesses is $16 million per year. “To replace one mile of pipe is $3 million in today’s dollars,” the mayor added. “This means if we were to replace one mile of pipes per year at today’s rate of $3 million, it would take us 200 years to replace all the pipes in our city, so we have to continuously maintain them, repair them and try to replace them as we can.”

The mayor then explained that water prices would have been even higher had the city not taken the initiative to renegotiate its water contract with the city of Toledo a few years ago.

“The city of Maumee had a water contract with the city of Toledo that would have expired in the year 2026,” explained Carr. “If we had not addressed this in advance of the expiration of that contract, we would have been subjected to whatever charges the city of Toledo wanted to charge us.

“That is why when Maumee residents were paying $26.00 per 100,000 gallons for Toledo water, Sylvania residents were paying $41.00 to $42.00 per 100,000 gallons for Toledo water,” Carr said.

Carr and other area mayors negotiated a new agreement “to end the city of Toledo having a monopoly on setting water rates. We were able to successfully reach an agreement.  Now, water rates that Toledo charges are determined by the communities who participate, with each having a representative.

“Had we not done anything, Maumee’s rates would have easily tripled in 2026, and we couldn’t have done anything about it,” the mayor asserted. “They could have charged us whatever they wanted.”

Carr explained that the city of Maumee’s water rates will gradually climb over the next few years until they reach the same level as the other communities purchasing water from Toledo.

“A very critical point that we negotiated was that for the citizens of Maumee, they did not immediately significantly raise our rates to even it out with Sylvania and other communities that pay way more,” the mayor assessed. “We reached an agreement that it would be done gradually between 2018 and 2026.”

The mayor stated that Maumee’s current water rate is comparable to the cities of Perrysburg and Waterville. The current cost of water to the city is two cents per gallon, he said.

Carr also touched on the ramifications of the Ohio EPA mandates that are affecting the cost of water, as well as the impact of Toledo-owned property and the Lucas County Recreation Center discharging rainwater into the Maumee sewer system. He stated that the combined bills to the rec center and the city of Toledo have now exceeded $1 million.

Carr also set the record straight on Maumee’s Ohio EPA fine, which some residents have claimed to be in excess of $1 million when, in fact, the fine amounted to just $29,000, with Maumee being provided several thousand dollars’ worth of free equipment from the Ohio EPA to help Maumee update its sewer system.

Following the lengthy presentation by the mayor and the city finance director, Carr informed the assembled audience that council had approved moving the citizens comments portion of the meeting from its normal position at the end of the agenda to the top of the agenda to accommodate those residents who were attending the meeting just to make comments.

Each resident was given three minutes in which to speak, and the mayor explained that council and the mayor could not reply to public comments or questions during the citizens comments portion of the meeting as is the usual protocol.

The following residents spoke before council:

Valerie Giovannucci, of 628 Midfield Dr., wanted to know if any progress has been made on increasing the senior discount rate for eligible utility billing customers from its present 3 percent. She also asked if the city was making progress on making its website more user-friendly.

Cheryl Baker, of 1304 Richland St., stated that she received a bill for $1,600 after her batteries had been replaced, and that she had two plumbers come in who could not find a leak. 

She said that after the battery in the telemetric unit was replaced, her water usage “spiked drastically on some days and was very minimal on other days. That was for March and June. Mysteriously, from June my usage has gone back to normal.” She also said her usage went up for some unknown reason while she was in Florida for 10 days. 

“How do you explain this?” she asked. “It’s not from a catch-up bill and it’s not from a leak. Obviously, I am not using 2,500 gallons of water per day. I don’t mind paying for what I use. I do mind paying for what I don’t use,” said Baker. “I did not use this much water, to this extent.”

Corey Tufts, of 618 Miami Manor, had a series of questions for council. “How is it known when the telemetry units are failing? Is there a way to find out if it’s going to fail soon, so that when moving forward we can make sure that this type of problem is mitigated? How do other cities measure their water usage?”

He also asked, “Is there any way that might again mitigate a mechanical or battery failure that would prohibit the accurate reporting in a timely manner? Are there any warranties on these telemetry units if the batteries have failed with half their life than was expected?”

Tufts also wanted to know if there was a state law that prevented council from forgiving a bill, or whether council could pass an ordinance to forgive bills on a case-by-case basis, if it was determined to be appropriate.

Linda Urbanski, of 525 E. William St., stated that she is taking manual readings of her water meter twice a day to ensure that her water usage is correct when she compares it to her bill. She said that she had high water usage readings and had a new toilet installed in her home that had a minor seal problem.

Urbanski stated that she wanted to make sure that she was noting the readings correctly on her meter and was interested in checking out the payment plan and the senior discount, which she was unaware of prior to the meeting.

Megan Hornsby, of 401 E. John St., said that she was upset about complications that arose during a renovation of a property when she received a “giant bill” from the water department after opening a new water account and receiving the balance from a prior owner’s water bill that had remained unpaid.

Hornsby wanted to know why unpaid water bill balances from a previous property owner are passed on to a new property owner without any warning. “I’d like to know if Maumee is going to be fair about prior owners’ bills across the board?” she asked.

Nicole Faulk, 606 W. Dudley St., stated that she was also stuck with a high water balance from a previous owner. Her bill is over $4,000 and the payment plan is taking up a good portion of her monthly income. She also wanted to know how residents could look up their account numbers.

Brian Dugger, of WTOL, talked about the despair that has been expressed by various people he has met who are struggling with Maumee water bills. He stated that one woman told him that she had to take out a loan to pay her bill and another man told him that he had to use his life savings to pay his water bill. 

Dugger also stated that he talked to two separate Maumee residents who claimed they were “mocked” by city employees in the utility billing department, and who allegedly dismissed the residents’ complaints over increased water usage by telling them to quit “doing so much laundry or taking too many showers.”

Dugger also wanted to know if the city of Maumee had any intention of taking legal action against Mueller Systems for the faulty battery issue, stating that the city of Jackson, Mich., has won a $90 million settlement from the firm.

Jim Fehlen, of 720 High St., was the last resident to address council. He said he was looking for an explanation of how the water rates are determined. He also wanted to know when there would be progress on the condition of High Street, saying that there is often a lot of standing water on the road surface. “When it rains, you can take a canoe down the street,” he quipped.

Fehlen said he was hoping to get an approximate date on when the street would be completed.

After the eight residents spoke, the mayor closed the citizens comments portion of the meeting and said that the city would address these concerns in the future. Since there were still a few items left on the agenda, the mayor offered the residents an opportunity to leave if they wished, and over two dozen of the 32 people in attendance chose to do so.

Later in the meeting, Maumee city administrator Patrick Burtch addressed some of the questions posed by the residents who spoke during the meeting. Those answers are available in greater detail in a video presentation that the city has since issued on YouTube (see sidebar for more details).

Harkey defended the personnel in the city’s utility billing department, taking issue with allegations of city personnel “mocking” residents. Harkey, whose office is just across the floor from the utility billing department, stated that she has witnessed first-hand some of the abuse that has been directed at the utility billing personnel from a handful of irate residents concerning their water bills. “The utility billing people take a lot of abuse,” Harkey stated.

Carr said there is “zero tolerance for that kind of behavior.”

In other action during the meeting, the mayor introduced 11-year-old Bentley Stewart, and publicly recognized her as “Honorary Police Officer of the Day” for her generous efforts to raise funds for the benefit of the Maumee Police Division. The Gateway Middle School student took it upon herself to raise funds for food items and a gift card, which she presented to the Maumee police.

She was honored with a plaque that was presented by Maumee Police Chief Josh Sprow and former Maumee police chief and current president of council, James MacDonald.

Maumee council then returned to business and took the following action:

• Authorized a one-year preventative maintenance agreement with Dunbar Mechanical Inc. in an amount not to exceed $7,745 for work at Maumee Fire Station No. 1.

• Approved the purchase of a 2021 Kawasaki Wave Runner at a cost of $9,101. The Wave Runner had been leased at no charge by the city under a special program, but supply and demand issues prompted Honda East to offer the vehicle for sale to the city rather than see the city lose it altogether.

• Declared that 30 city vehicles be declared as surplus and authorized the sale of the vehicles by Enterprise Fleet Management, and authorized the city administrator to effectuate the sale.

The next meeting of Maumee City Council is scheduled for 6:15 p.m. on Monday, November 21 in council chambers at the Maumee Municipal Building, 400 Conant St. 

As always, Maumee City Council meetings are open to the public.

Maumee Officials Provide Direct Answers To Questions Posed By Residents At Council Meeting On October 17

The city of Maumee is providing the following video links that give information about water and sewer billing and directly answer questions that were posed by residents at the October 17 Maumee City Council meeting.

At the city council meeting, Mayor Rich Carr, Finance Director Jennifer Harkey and others introduced an overview of water and sewer facts prior to residents asking their questions. That overview can be viewed at https://youtu.be/cYwr7wOJEtw.

To answer residents’ questions in a comprehensive manner, the following video was created to provide additional clarification to questions that were posed that evening. That video can be viewed at https://youtu.be/YV6Fk9C_AZY.

The city of Maumee encourages any resident who needs additional information or assistance with a payment plan for a “catch-up” bill to visit, call or email the Maumee Utility Department at 400 Conant St., (419) 897-7125 or utilitybilling@maumee.org. 

For more information, visit maumee.org/our_community/utilities.

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