Water woes still saturate PA community

Water woes still saturate PA community

Acting Port Arthur Water Utilities Director Dr. Hani Tohme, who formerly held a similar position in Beaumont before being forced from the top rank following a scathing assessment of the department that noted gross overspending and mismanagement, says his new crew is “working on” addressing the tens of thousands of dollars Port Arthur residents such as 77-year-old Joyce Sanders have been overbilled for the essential utility service. His cohort and Acting Port Arthur Water Utilities Billing supervisor Rhonda Standberry, who served as the third employee in the Beaumont ISD finance office signing off on invoices that eventually caught the eye of the FBI and led to the arrests of her two closest co-workers in Devin McCraney and Sharika Allison, points to training the department’s employees are now receiving and a “case-by-case” review of bills as the temporary fix the city can provide. Short of a system-wide overhaul the pair admits is not likely to happen any time soon, residents can still expect the unexpected when they open their water bills.

While some reprieve is better than none, the Rev. Harry Abrams is seeking more for those who call the port city home. For months now, Abrams has been seeking resolution to a $5,000 water bill that caused the city of Port Arthur to, without even so much as a disconnect notice, discontinue service to his elderly mother’s home. Mom, also known as longtime PA resident Joyce Sanders, told The Examiner her monthly bill would typically run $30 per month before the astronomical increase she noted in late fall 2018 – and when she first started getting bills in the thousands of dollars range, she figured there must be some mistake. It wasn’t until the city unexpectedly disconnected service that Sanders really began to worry.

When Abrams learned of his mother’s problem with City Hall, he went to get to the heart of the matter himself. Impromptu and planned meetings with city officials and staff, phone calls that sometimes elicited answers to questions he was asking but more often than not led to even more questions, and even a staged protest in front of City Hall ensued – all resulting in “some” relief to Sanders and a handful of other elderly Port Arthur residents who have found themselves in the same quandary as Abrams’ mother.

But “some” relief isn’t enough, Abrams says, and he is still taking up his plight with city leaders.

“Faulty transmitters” have created high water bills in the city and “I am standing for those who cannot stand – the elderly and the disabled… to resolve this issue,” Abrams told The Examiner. On Tuesday evening, Jan. 8, he stood before the city council and assembled city staffers to again plead to city leaders for resolve. While Abrams admits that some bills were “significantly reduced” during meetings with administration, they are still too high for many of the city’s elderly residents – not to mention the fact that if the bills can be “adjusted,” they were obviously flawed when sent to residents in the first place.

“Take back the high water bills and fix your leaks as we fix the leaks on our side,” Abrams asked the city’s elected leaders. At least 100 people, Abrams said, have reported through him that they, too, have experienced unreasonable – and unfairly charged – water bills due to the city’s flawed equipment and billing practices. “Something is wrong,” Abrams reiterated time and time again.

Abrams wasn’t bringing up information new to the elected leaders, according to City Councilman Harold Doucet.

“When you talk about the faulty transmitters,” Doucet said, “we are aware of it. When you talk about incorrect water bills, we are aware of it.” Council and water utility directors, he said, “are working to resolve the issues.”

Not everyone receiving the exponentially increased bills will see reprieve, however.

“Each case is an individual case,” Doucet further explained. Some water bills, he claimed, are legitimate. “When someone goes to the water department… if they are not satisfied, my recommendation is to call your council member.

“We will fix it, but it will be on an individual basis. Not everybody complaining has a valid point. We are not going to do anything with a catchall.”

The water utility is an enterprise fund, which generates revenue for the city as a whole, Doucet reminded.

Acting Water Utilities Director Tohme agreed that the city of Port Arthur needs the funds it is charging Port Arthur residents to pad the municipality’s coffers.

Saying that it is “essential for our financial stability,” Tohme too balked at any across-the-board reprieve for residential and commercial water bills – regardless of how many have been found to be exceptionally flawed to date. Billing supervisor Standberry said that the water utility staff has replaced more than 2,200 meter reading equipment pieces since June 2018, but loss of communication between the two main devices used to manufacture water billing “is an ongoing failure” with upwards of 1,500 still on the replacement list. She made no mention of water meters destroyed during Hurricane Harvey debris removal, which several citizens experienced after the storm. Many have still not been replaced.

“Our whole objective is to capture the revenue we need to capture so that we don’t have to do rate increases to do the work we need to do,” Tohme said. “We find no pleasure in turning people’s water off. We’re working with people, but at the same time we have to work for the interest of the city and the citizens…”

Standberry also agreed with the plan to keep possibly flawed Port Arthur water bills as is, unless someone complains, upon which time the bill can be reviewed on an individual basis.

“In most cases,” she said, “we are able to adjust the bill and offer the customer a payment plan.”

Those who do not make arrangements to pay what “adjustment” is offered, she added, will be subject to disconnection.

“We don’t just turn off a person’s water,” Standberry said. “If you have not paid a bill, maybe since September, your water is going to get turned off.”

 “In some cases,” Standberry said, “the customer has not been billed for water for many months.” But that doesn’t mean the bill won’t come due anyway – or get placed on a disconnect list. Prodded by council requests for answers, Tohme said that many of the residents whose water has indeed been disconnected were not even informed prior to disconnection due to a lack of ability to notify customers of pending disconnection activity.

“We’re working on that,” he said.

Tohme said he and staff are also working on upping the fees for those found to be bypassing the meter-based billing system. He and Standberry noted 500 “straight-connects,” or lines connected between the home and waterline bypassing the billing meter, at residences citywide. Such lines, the city workers noted, is partially the result of spliced meter lines that were installed improperly and partially the result of illegal activity where would-be water customers rig up the lines themselves to bypass billing meters. Currently, getting caught with a “straight-connect” results in a $300 reconnection fee; Tohme wants that increased to $800, he said, as a deterrent.

All the turmoil currently experienced by the city’s water customers, according to the city staff, can be traced back as far as 2015, but the effects are just now being realized.

“We know we got a problem and we don’t want citizens to suffer for our problem,” Councilman Doucet said. “What’s happening today is on our watch and we will not let citizens pay when they should not be paying.”

According to him, those who feel they have been overcharged need to be proactive in getting their bill re-assessed.

“It was good they gave me time to speak,” Abrams said Wednesday, Jan. 9, although he did not necessarily walk away from the encounter any happier than before the meeting. “They’re not willing to refund the money to the people. They know it was their fault, and they are continuing to turn people’s water off. They’re not budging on their position.”

“The main problem, while the city is trying to fix these problems, is the citizens are still having to pay these high water bills,” Abrams said, adding that the fight for overbilling reprieve continues. “It’s far from over. It can’t be over.

“My next step is to pursue litigation.”