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Water District: Equipment failure to blame for sky-high bills

Water District: Equipment failure to blame for sky-high bills

By Daniel Gutierrez. CREATED Apr 26, 2012

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- For seven months, viewers have been calling and emailing Action News about skyrocketing water bills and asking why they can't get any explanations.

Like Joe Dotson, who was shocked to open a $2700 water bill. And Vicki Montgomery, who received a bill for $840.20. 

"It was either pay the bill or shut off my water," said Brennon O'Neil.

Finally, we're hearing from the head of the Las Vegas Valley Water District about a major equipment problem behind some of those high bills. 

Several of our requests to speak with Pat Mulroy, General Manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, were turned down. That's when we decided to go to the president of the Water District's Board of Directors, Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak.

"I don't care if you've got one complaint or 200 complaints in your folder here. We should be available to answer each and every one of these," said Sisolak.

Fifteen minutes after our conversation with Commissioner Sisolak ended, we got a call from Pat Mulroy, agreeing to an interview.

"Sitting here looking at this pile. It's a lot of complaints," said Mulroy when we showed her a stack of complaints.

And one of the most common complaints: 'underbilling'. That's when the electronic device that reads your meter known as a "firefly" doesn't properly read how much water your using.

Wayne Chopek is familiar with the issue. He was hit with a nearly $4,500 bill.

"It literally blew my socks off. I couldn't believe it. I had to read it 3 or 4 times," said Wayne.

It was back in February when the Water District says they discovered the firefly on Wayne's meter failed. And he wasn't being billed for the proper amount for an entire year.

"I'm basically a slave to business and taking their word for it. I don't know how could they have left it for a year knowing that. How could they, if they didn't know, how am I supposed to know?" asked Wayne.

So after the issue was discovered, the Water District came to collect.

"Obviously we've had some failed fireflys," Mulroy said. "And obviously that means we have to go back and we have this horrible experience of having to send someone a big bill."

Contact 13 has heard those big bill complaints before.

"One bill was 57,000 gallons. The backyard should have been knee deep by then," says Peter Taggart.

"Is there an issue with the battery life for these firefly devices?" asks Tricia. "Yes, there was an issue with the battery life," says Mulroy.

So after seven months of Contact 13 looking into customer complaints, this is the first time we've heard of a bigger issue. Mulroy says it's a manufacturing problem discovered five years after the devices were installed.

"It should have had an 8 to 10 year life. It didn't. And now we are in the process of replacing all those fireflys," says Mulroy.

And when a firefly device fails, customers get bills, for far less than their usual water usage. In Wayne's case, he received some bills for as little as zero gallons, but says he never noticed.

"Because it is auto pay, I very rarely had looked at the bills," says Wayne.

So why didn't the water district notice? Mulroy says it was a technical issue.

"We have fixed our computer system on the billing end, to where people aren't going to be getting zero bills anymore," says Mulroy.

So here's the Contact 13 bottom line: Mulroy says the Water District hopes to stop mailing out zero bills within the next 30-60 days.

As for Wayne, the Water District acknowledges he had a leak. But it was never discovered because of their equipment failure. So they're reducing his bill by nearly $2,500.