Kansas State University Underbilled For Water Meter Mistakes Blamed Again For Billing Error

Jessica Pitts

Kansas State Collegian

In what seems to be its second big oversight this year, the city of Manhattan has been underbilling K-State.

Van Zile Dining Hall has been underbilled $15,000 for water usage during the past two years.

The problem seems to be due to a meter malfunction, Bernie Hayen, director of city finance, said. The outside meter, which was not working, fed to an inside meter, which was working properly. City meter readers use the outside meters to determine water usage. This apparently caused the underbilling.

The readers reported a dead meter, but the billing procedure was not properly handled, Hayen said.

"Utility billing people ill-advisedly billed them the wrong amount," Hayen said.

Instead of billing K-State its average bill amount, a common procedure when meters are broken, the city billed Van Zile $14.94 a month, which is the minimum water bill amount. The bill should have run between $600 and $700 each month.

"Mistakes are going to occur," Hayen said. "We are aware of that possibility, but they should be caught in a reasonable amount of time. Unfortunately, 24 months is too long."

However, university officials said they are not concerned with the mistake.

"I don’t believe it was a significant amount," Skyler Harper, assistant director of Housing and Dining Services, said. "The meter was broken, and the city is going to provide us with a new one to install."

In July, city officials also discovered that the water meter readings for Colbert Hills Golf Course were read incorrectly for the past three years, making the water bill significantly lower than it should have been. The city is estimating Colbert Hills was underbilled about $382,000, Hayen said.

K-State placed a six-dial meter at the golf course three years ago. However, meter readers were advised to continue reading it as a five-dial meter, thus making each reading lower than it actually was.

The city and Colbert Hills officials are in the process of determining a plan for a repayment process, Hayen said.

Although Hayen said the city is taking the blame for both errors, he said the university must have known there was a problem with its bill.

"It is no different than a residence," he said. "You know something is wrong when your bill is significantly lower. K-State had to have a set budget for water usage, but it is always a question of do you wait for it to be discovered or report it? Still, the ultimate responsibility is the city’s."

Harper said the fault lies with the city.

"It is their responsibility," he said. "They read our meter and bill us."

A plan for a repayment process has not been established, but Hayen said the city will not bill the university in one lump sum.

"We will determine the amount of money and work out a process," he said.

Harper said he still is unsure how much the university owes.

"I am not sure if we will be able to determine that amount," he said. "We will fix the meter, and then they should be able to properly track our water usage."

The city is working on safeguards to prevent this from recurring.

"I think we have enjoyed a good relationship with the university," Hayen said. "This is just one of the cases that has slipped through the cracks, and it sends a clear message something is wrong."

The university has an unusual relationship with the city. The city of Manhattan provides water service, but K-State is responsible for maintenance — including replacing malfunctioning meters.

"That partnership ought to exist," Hayen said. "When a meter goes bad, we need to communicate that quickly to K-State officials, and they need to replace them. Unfortunately, these two cases were missed somewhere in the chain."

To prevent missing another case, the city plans to improve its system in three main areas. The first will be to redefine the university’s status. Water usage now is separated into two categories — residential and business. Hayden wants the university to become its own separate category.

"It makes sense," he said. "They are major users of city water. It should help us catch the mistakes because we would be able to look at the water being produced compared to the water being consumed at a more precise level."

The second safeguard is to implement a reverse override system in the billing process. At present, the process has a set ceiling for water usage. If a bill goes above that amount, the system automatically generates a report. The reverse override system would do the opposite — generate a report if the monthly water usage drops below a set floor amount.

The final safeguard deals with new water customers. For every new user, like Target or Home Depot, the city will find a retail establishment in the system that is similar and compare monthly use for six months to ensure the meter is working properly.

"It is embarrassing to have these mistakes," Hayen said. "We just want to take every possible step to prevent this from happening in the future."