Editorials

Are KC residents paying for water they didn’t use? Faulty meters installed in some homes

Five things to know about Kansas City’s skyrocketing water and sewer bills

Kansas City's water bills have continued to increase at a fast rate, but the City Council hopes it can alleviate the skyrocketing costs. Rain garden photo and water bill data from Kansas City Water Services.
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Kansas City's water bills have continued to increase at a fast rate, but the City Council hopes it can alleviate the skyrocketing costs. Rain garden photo and water bill data from Kansas City Water Services.

For years, customers of Kansas City’s Water Services Department have endured rate increases that have strained household budgets, some to the point of breaking.

Water and sewer prices have skyrocketed during the past decade. In 2017, service was shut off to almost 19,000 customers.

So it’s disconcerting to learn some customers may have paid for more water than they actually used. That troubling conclusion was contained in an audit released last week at City Hall.

The Water Department, it turns out, tested 246 new meters last fiscal year, and 47 of them failed — almost 20%. The department installed them anyway.

Wait — what? The department installed water meters it knew were faulty?

That’s a problem. “Installing a failed meter can lead to inaccurate registration of water usage,” the audit noted. “Customers may overpay for water that they did not use.”

Indeed. That’s why it’s disturbing that Water Services actually defended the practice. “The manufacturer does certify those (meters) to be accurate,” said Terry Leeds, director of KC Water.

The department said it would replace the faulty meters that have already been installed, which is an obvious first step. But it is resisting a recommendation that new meters be randomly and extensively tested in the future to ensure the devices are working properly.

Leeds says he’s willing to do some tests, but “what we haven’t agreed with (is) that we would do a statistically accurate number of tests,” he told a City Council committee.

In some cases, though, the department isn’t testing new water meters at all. Last June, Water Services took delivery of 2,000 new meters — and didn’t test any of them, the audit found.

Wait — what?

The department’s goal shouldn’t be protecting the companies that make water meters or reducing the workload for its own employees. Job one should be making sure customers pay for exactly the amount of water they use, and only the water they use.

That means random, statistically relevant tests of new meters before they’re installed. If too many fail, the department should send the whole shipment back.

Additionally, the department needs to develop a comprehensive strategy to replace aging meters, something it has promised to do.

This isn’t difficult. There are more than 170,000 water meters in service in Kansas City. The customers who use them must have absolute confidence those meters are accurate. Water rates are high enough without sticking residents with the bill for phantom water measured by a faulty meter.

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