Stanley Gairey couldn’t understand how he had gone through 2,700 gallons of water at his home in one day.
- Gairey, a 67-year-old Santa Fe native, called the city’s Water Division to get an explanation.
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Instead of getting an answer, however, all he got was an answering machine that repeated the same message, adding to his frustration. “He claimed he was on hold with the Water Div. at the same time he was speaking to me and has been on hold for over 15 minutes,” Therese Prada of the city’s Office of Constituent Services wrote in a Nov.
16 email to Diana Catanach, the utility billing director. “He also mentioned that this happened right after the new meter was installed (he was very unhappy).”. Gairey’s complaint is among more than two dozen logged in writing against the city’s Utility Billing Division in the last six months, about the same time the city started to replace defective meters with a new “smart” meter-reading system.
The New Mexican first reported a spike in complaints over water bills last month, most of which stemmed from the installation of new water meters.
But the complaint documents, including one laced with profanity, illustrate a deep level of frustration felt by utility customers over a range of issues beyond billing errors, including unusually long wait times over the phone, failures to notify customers about service cutoffs and the City Council’s practice of siphoning money from water ratepayers in recent years to shore up the general fund.
“The water folks did a terrible job regarding notification of homeowners about replacing water meters with ‘smart’ meters. Our water went off in the middle of the afternoon, and I had no idea whether it was a problem in our house or from the street,” Craig Campbell wrote in an email to City Councilor Joseph Maestas, who told Campbell he was also “disappointed” in the lack of notification.
“Secondly,” Campbell added, “I am in the camp that believes the Water Department should have been required to return at least 50 percent of the huge overcharge rather than assign it to other City functions. Probably too late to affect that situation, but there should have been clear evidence of the overcharge LONG ago.”.
Gairey, who got a $400 water bill, echoed a similar sentiment, saying in a telephone interview that he has no faith in the people running the Water Division. “I just don’t trust the people running that damn place,” he said.
“The other thing that really frosts my [obsenity] is that they’re overcharging the hell for water and then they’re taking it to run other city divisions. … The city, under David Coss, he was a bleeding freaking heart, they’ve should’ve gotten rid of the damn managers who couldn’t maintain their damn budgets and they would’ve nipped the problem in the bud.”.
Gairey said he had “a situation” years ago in which his water meter wasn’t working properly despite denials from the Water Division. At his insistence, the water meter was changed, and “everything was fine,” he said.
“I can go on and on and on, but when I start talking about it, I get really pissed off because it’s a bureaucratic freaking nightmare,” he said. Like Gairey, other water customers also complained about wait times on the phone. “I’m a lifelong Santa Fe resident and this … is ridiculous,” Thomas Griego wrote in a profanity-laced email Nov.
“Someone in this city department better learn a thing or two about customer service, and answer the [obscenity] phone in a decent amount of time.”. Amanda Vigil, the customer service representative who received Griego’s email, forwarded it to Catanach.
“I believe this needs to be taken care of at your level,” she wrote. Last month, Nick Schiavo, the city’s public utilities director, said the Water Division was dealing with a spike in complaints, many of which were tied to the installation of the new water meters.
The influx of complaints, plus a staffing shortage, created longer wait times on the phone, a problem that persists. Schiavo, who on Monday referred questions about the complaints to Catanach, said last month that the new Badger Meter Inc. devices are much more accurate than the old meters, giving a true reading of customers’ water usage.
In cases in which customers’ bills are much higher than normal, Schiavo said, the old and defective Firefly data-transmitting devices have been “underreading for months.” After the new meters are installed, the system “is trying to true up that read,” he said.
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That’s what happened in Gairey’s case, Catanach said in an interview. When his meter was exchanged Oct. 6, the new meter did a “catch-up read,” she said.
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“He was billed for 16,900 gallons,” she said, adding that the city adjusted his bill based on last year’s rate.
Gairey didn’t believe his bill was accurate even after it dropped to about $187, but he paid it anyway.
Following Up with the Water Company
“I still think that was probably $100 too high, but I was tired of arguing,” he said. The complaints against the Utility Billing Division, obtained by The New Mexican under an open-records request, raise a host of concerns from various people, including City Council candidate Marie Campos, who said in May that her water bill had doubled.
In an email to Schiavo, Campos said her attempts to the get the problem resolved at the Water Division offices were fruitless. “There must be an error in the meters or when the company was working on Maez Rd created a problem,” Campos wrote.
“I do not own a hot tub, swimming pool or have a major leak.