By Anne Geggis

A technical glitch that set off sticker shock for hundreds of Delray Beach water customers prompted the City Commission to move to forgive bills out of whack with those customers’ average water usage.

City staff said the glitch — some resulting in bills thousands of dollars more than water customers’ normal bills — was due to a technical problem on a vendor’s part that will take three months to fully repair.

About 2% of the city’s 20,000 water customers — 488 accounts — received erroneous bills in November and December, according to city staff. It’s because the city’s automatic meter reader has stopped working on about 30% of the water accounts throughout the city, staff explained.

“It’s been recently determined that a number of the encoders had actually malfunctioned,” City Manager Terrence Moore said at the Jan. 4 commission meeting.

If the meter couldn’t be manually read, the glitch prompted estimates for some water customers’ water usage, he explained.

“That’s resulted in some customers, not the majority, but some customers having to experience higher-than-expected bills,” Moore said.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia said she’s gotten an earful from city residents, including one who received a $5,700 water bill.

“I’m a little upset because I’m the one who gets blamed for this and I have absolutely no knowledge of it,” Petrolia said, noting that water billing problems have occurred in the past.

Staff is available to talk to any customers who have concerns that they were overbilled, Moore said. The City Commission unanimously agreed that affected customers will be billed based on the average usage for the past 12 months.

Resident Evelyn Dobson said that she was one of those people who got a $1,000 water bill, quite a bit more than her usual bill of $100 to $120.

“I was royally upset,” Dobson said, before praising the commission’s decision to average out recent, higher-than-normal bills.

The glitch was because radio devices in each meter that transmit the information from individual meters to the city have increasingly started to fail, city staff said. And, luckily, it happened within the 10-year warranty with the city vendor, Badger Meter. Talks with the Milwaukee company have started. And repairs are in the offing.

“So this was just a fluke on behalf of Badger and there’s nothing we can really do to prevent this sort of thing?” Commissioner Rob Long asked.

Moore responded that the initial focus is to get the repairs squared away.

An answer as to the total amount billed in error was not available from city staff.

But Petrolia said she thinks the problem is more than just a technical glitch — and that more erroneous utility billing would be brought to the city’s attention sooner rather than later.

“There’s no responsibility and no accountability,” she said, recalling that the same problem emerged in 2020, when there were reports of $100,000 water bills.

At the Jan. 16 commission meeting, Petrolia proposed moving the utility billing out of the city Finance Department’s purview and back to the Water Utilities Department, where it was before. But none of her colleagues offered support for the idea.

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