MATEWAN — Approximately 60 Matewan residents recently received abnormal water bills, and about half of them were present to voice their complaints at the town’s utility board meeting Tuesday evening.
Mayor Sheila Kessler, Councilwoman Lois Justice and Project Manager for Veolia Water Jason Allen fielded questions from a roomful of upset customers for a little more than an hour.
The Town of Matewan has approximately 960 customers on its water system. The latest bills to be sent out to around 60 people, or about 6 percent of the customer base, were abnormal. Some bills which would normally run for $90 jumped without warning to $209.
At first, everyone in the room was speaking at once, with many of the arguments proving to be unintelligible. Kessler called for order and asked those who wanted to speak to raise their hands.
One man complained of having his bill cycle contain three weeks worth of information and five months on the next, leading to inconsistent billing. A woman complained of having her last month’s usage of water go from 5,000 to 11,000 for apparently no reason.
“My bill went from $84 in December to $285 in January,” another man said. “The average bill is around $150. When I tell friends that my water bill is around $200, they laugh at me. No area has higher water bills than ours!”
The crowd asked what Kessler’s bill was, to which was announced to be $130.
“I don’t care to pay $100,” one woman said. “But something’s not right; $215 is unacceptable.”
Some people complained of water rates being too high, but Kessler told the audience that neither she nor the town had control over what the rates could be, saying that the Public Service Commission set them. She apologized for rates, but said that she was unable to do anything about them.
However, Kessler said that “when this many people have jumps like this, something’s wrong.”
The mayor said that the PSC said that if the cause of the abnormal increases couldn’t be figured out, that the town would average the customers’ bill from last year and bill them that amount instead.
Kessler emphasized that service would only be for those who had massive jumps in their water bills for one month.
One man in the crowd brought up the fact that his water bill went up when he filled his swimming pool, and that if the last year’s bill was averaged, it would be higher than normal because of that.
Kessler said that she understood that and suggested that the swimming pool months be omitted from the averaging, and would instead average 11 months from last year’s water bills for those affected by the strange jump in price.
Councilman David Smith, who arrived later into the meeting, gave an anecdotal story about his water bill being erroneous once, billed for an incredibly high amount of gallons in the millions. He said that error was due to human error.
“And human error is what caused the problem we have today,” Smith said.
It was announced last night that a handheld meter reader would go into use today to take accurate meter readings instead of workers jotting them down into notebooks. Kessler also said that, if the affected customers desired, their meters would be taken and recalibrated at no cost to them.
Allen was asked by a citizen what the town’s water loss was, to which he answered “right around 50 percent.”
He said that it was not a normal percentage, but that it was much worse before Veolia came to Matewan. That amount of water loss doesn’t affect what customers pay, but it does affect what the town pays, which can lead to increased rates.
Smith said that the town was “paying for the mistakes of past leaders,” who purchased too large of a system after the flood “before I was here, before the council or mayor was here,” and expected the population to explode. He also reminded the audience of the fact that the town hadn’t seen a rate increase in 12 years while other municipalities had them yearly.
Matewan’s water rate increase is tiered, and is on the second of three increases.
“It costs too much to live here!” one voice called out.
Kessler pointed out that it wasn’t just water that had gone up in price, but also electricity and chemicals needed to pump and treat the water.
After that point, the meeting seemed to end itself, with many customers seemingly pleased with how the meeting went and what they had heard.
One woman, who asked to not be named, said that her bill jumped from $86 to $285.
“I’m okay with what I heard,” she told the Daily News. “I don’t know what will happen in the future though, it needs to be looked into.”
Another woman, Ruthann O’Brien, of Blackberry City, said that she came to the meeting “very pessimistic,” was but also liked what she heard and how it was handled.
“I’m very pleased,” she said. “But it seems there’s no solution in reach until the meters are fixed and the meter readers are held more accountable.”
The regular council meeting was held after the utility board meeting with a substantially smaller crowd, which heard Councilman Smith drop a bombshell on the council.
He said that he had been reading the contract that the town had entered into Veolia with which cost the town around $71,000/month. Smith said that contract was set to expire June 30, 2016, but found a clause which allows the town to terminate at will with 30-days written notice.
“I move to issue a 30-day notice of termination due to the declining health of our water system and letting the town take over,” Smith said. “Matewan had ran its own water system for years and I don’t see why we can’t do it again.”
Kessler allowed the floor open for discussion, but no discussion was had. Not a single person spoke for roughly a minute-and-a-half.
“No other councilman has a thought?” Kessler asked.
The mayor finally said that since there was no second to Smith’s motion, the council should at least respect his suggestion to investigate the price and to see what it would cost to terminate the contract and have the town run its own water system. It was tabled and will be discussed at future council meetings.