By Anne Geggis 

If you have a Delray Beach city water account, chances are getting closer to 50-50 that the meter reader that determines how much you’re charged isn’t working right.

As many as 40% of the city’s automatic water meter readers have stopped communicating with the billing system, and apparently there’s no easy fix for getting them corrected.

Up to 2,000 more non-communicative meter readers were reported at the Feb. 20 City Commission meeting, up from the 6,000 the commission heard about at a Jan. 4 meeting. The glitch prompted the sending of estimated water bills rather than ones based on actual usage, leading to sticker shock for some customers, as some bills jumped thousands of dollars higher than normal. That prompted adjustments to about 488 city water accounts.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia’s concerns that commissioners weren’t getting a true picture of the depth of the problem in January led to a February staff presentation showing an even greater problem with the automatic readers. Her position hasn’t changed, even after the new report.

“It feels like I’m not getting the entire story each and every time — it feels like we’re getting pieces of it,” Petrolia said later.

Back in early 2023, city officials estimated about 1,500 out of 20,000 water customers had faulty readers. That estimate has now ballooned to between 7,000 and 8,000 customers.

The company that provided the meter readers, Badger Meter, originally told the city that the replacement parts were not being manufactured and tried to sell officials on another system, to replace the one the city bought for nearly $7.7 million in 2013.

“To me that was unacceptable because we had all these meters in place and all of a sudden, now we’re going to change our entire communication system,” Utilities Director Hassan Hadjimiry said.

The city pressed harder, Hadjimiry said, and Badger proposed another encoder to replace the damaged ones. But that’s going to come at a cost to the city and it’s not going to be fully covered by a warranty.

While Hadjimiry assured commissioners that what the city spends to maintain its water information system is on par with neighboring cities, Petrolia said the faulty readers are costing the city more than just money.

“The trust has been broken and that’s the thing you can’t get back from people who are receiving these crazy bills,” Petrolia said.

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