My favorite part of the audit released yesterday of the city’s water meters: In 2008, when the water department was taking flak for too many “implausible” meter readings — meter readings that are either crazy, totally whacked out or you-gotta-be-kidding-me — they did what any head-up self-defending bureaucracy would do.
They redefined "implausible."
In the careful language of accountancy, City Auditor Craig D. Kinton says in his nine-page audit of Dallas Water Utilities (DWU) that, “In 2008 … DWU raised tolerance settings on the control designed to detect meter reading errors that appear implausible, rendering the control potentially less effective.” Kinton said DWU told his auditors they did that so they could “identify meter read errors more efficiently.”
No, listen: the “implausible” readings are what are called in engineering slang, “idiot checks.” As in, “Waaaait a minute, this one is totally crazy! This dude’s whole house would have floated away like Noah’s ark by now if he had run this much water through his meter in a month.”
It’s how they know that something is really out whack. It’s not called “imprecise.” It’s not even called “inaccurate.” It’s called implausible, another term for which, in this context, might be “totally impossible.”
So they got right on that problem. They changed the settings in their control software so that the meter readings that were caught and singled out as implausible the day before the change — the red flags — were perfectly OK the day after. No more red flags. I guess that took care of that.
Kinton says in his audit report that DWU has not revisited the implausibility issue since 2008. I guess that means we should be grateful for small blessings. At least they haven’t had to upwardly revise implausibility since then.
In their response to the audit, DWU Director Jody Puckett and Assistant City Manager Mark McDaniel agree with Kinton that the whole implausibility thing deserves revisiting, but they say can’t get to it until the next fiscal year. It’s one of a few places in their three-page tiny-type letter of response where they suggest many of DWU’s issues are tied to funding.
Right now I find that totally plausible, although I may decide to redefine plausible later. I wrote here just yesterday about the Ponzi-scheme growth pattern Dallas has pursued over the last half-century and the state of unacknowledged virtual bankruptcy it has left us with in terms of deferred maintenance.
But it also seems to be the case that a certain behavior pattern sets in when the crew knows the ship can’t stop leaking no matter what they do. You probably do not remember that 10 years ago under City Manager Mary Suhm the city spent $53 million on a new computer system to modernize water billing, but five years later they gave up and asked the City Council for another $8.3 million so they could turn it over to a consultant.
Angela Hunt, then a council member, went ballistic and said if somebody at City Hall spent $53 million on something that didn’t work the city manager should at least find out why. The rest of the City Council felt that Hunt was being negative, and they voted up the $8.3 mil’ per the manager’s request.
Maybe if I give you a hint, some of you will remember what else was going on with City Hall and technology at that time, five years ago. Here’s the hint: Chosen Vessel Cathedral.
Chosen Vessel Cathedral in Fort Worth was the spiritual home of nine of the city’s top technology and information staff members, including Associate Pastor Worris Levine, whom Suhm hired as head of her IT department and who soon after hired the eight others, almost none of whom had any particular background in, familiarity with or even awareness of IT.
One might assume they are all gone now, but in my experience if you give that civil service system a hard shake you’d be surprised what still falls out. And, you know, maybe we should redefine “surprised.”
But before I try to do that, let me say that the new Kinton audit of DWU reveals another thing I did find totally surprising. After all these tens of millions of dollars — well, fifties of millions, actually — spent supposedly automating the “meter-to-billing process,” the “DWU Meter Operations Division” (more on that in a moment) does its work manually and on paper.
The meter-to-billing-process is the process by which your meter says how much water you used and then your bill says how much you owe for that. In order for the meter-to-billing-process to work, your meter has to be able to measure your water so your bill knows how much to charge you (stop me if I’m going too fast).
The Meter Operations Division staff are the people who make sure your meter works right. According to the audit, they put all of their information on paper instead of directly into a database. But when the auditors tested the Meter Operations Division's paperwork, they found that 66 percent of the reports they should have been able to find were missing.
The audit suggests strongly that an implausibly surprising number of residential water meters never get read and the bills associated with those meters are based on … based on … they don’t say. I have actually had this conversation myself with the water guys, and they have always told me it’s based on “history.” Until I read this audit, I never thought to ask, “American history?”
A word of caution, however: Lots of people get the wise idea, “Oh, they’ve never read my meter, so I’ll make them come read it, and I bet I’ll get a big rebate from them.”
Folk wisdom on the street in my part of town has always been that it works the other way. Your reward for demanding a new meter or a meter reading is that you get a bill the next month for $2,000 in catch-up fees.
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The audit confirms that the wise people in my part of town are right: “Prolonged use of consecutive estimates has resulted in customers receiving large monthly bills when their meters were finally read,” the audit report says.
They have their ways.
A last thought, however: if there are any baby lawyers out there prospecting for a new line of business, it’s probable that thousands of water meters in Dallas have been left in place far beyond their reliable life cycles. I am thinking of billboards on the freeway: “BIG WATER BILL? CALL WATER DOG JONES, THE LAWYER WHO CAN MAKE THEM EAT THAT BILL.”
Just a thought for the people.