City administration seeks to rectify water bill situation

Some residents in Ruston were surprised by their water bills this past month, and as a result of previous inaccurate readings, Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker said he and the city administration has fixed the inaccurate readings and is working to rectify the bill situation.

“We as a city administration — starting with me at the top — we found a problem. We found the solution,” Walker said. “We have corrected it, but we want to mitigate it. Basically, (there will be) no (water) charge for the month of January.”

Walker said the city knew for a fact that every meter in January was read accurately, which gave the city a starting point.

“The past six months, we couldn’t say that,” he said. “We know for a fact now we have gotten all the systems fixed. We’ve got new equipment, everything. We know that (for) January we have perfect readings for everybody. Therefore, we can move forward.”

According to city officials, Ruston contracted with Cooper Eaton to install advanced metering infrastructure nodes which collect and remit metering information electronically to the city. Because of this, the city began to downsize its Meter Reading Department and did not replace antiquated handheld meter reading equipment as the process was no longer manual.  Later in this period, the city began having failures of the newly installed nodes and began working with Cooper Eaton on a solution. Cooper Eaton continued to assure the city that the situation would be fixed in the short-term.

“We entered a contract with a company called Eaton,” Walker said. “So we don’t have meter readers who go around reading everybody’s house. It’s all automatic. So we decided to do that with water because it is much more efficient. So they installed 10,000 nodes. The node actually fits on top of the meter. Well, six months in, they started failing. So (Eaton) said we’ve got a problem with our manufacturing plant, but we think we have a fix. So they came in and replaced the whole 10,000 again. Okay, same thing. Six months, they start failing. So in the end, they found that they had a major issue in their manufacturing plant far beyond what they thought.”

City officials said the Cooper Eaton faulty nodes continued to fail. The high failure rate put a burden on the Meter Reading Department required them to perform manual reads. City administrators became aware of issues related to the reliability of antiquated handheld meter reading equipment and availability of manpower to complete all manual reads necessary due to the continuing failure of the nodes. At times, some readings were estimated based on prior year consumption.

The decision was made to hire additional meter readers and purchase new handheld devices. However, at that time, the city was in the process of upgrading its MUNIS software system, which included an upgrade to the utility billing system. The new handheld devices were not compatible with the old MUNIS system so they could not begin using those until the upgrade was completed. New handheld devices were ordered, but with current supply chain delays, were not received until late December 2022.

Now, however, the MUNIS upgrade has been completed. New handhelds have been received, and the city began a comprehensive meter reading effort to obtain accurate readings for all water meters within the city of Ruston.

With the new meter readers in now, Walker said the city knows that every meter in this past month was read accurately.

“If you received a bill in the month of January, we’re going to refund them their water piece – only the water piece – in the February bill,” Walker said. “So if you’ve already gotten your bill for January, it was already on there. You’re going to pay it. But we’re going to turn around in February and you’ll have a credit for whatever that water charge was.

“Because this was a self-inflicted wound our devices, our personnel, our protocol and how we do things did not work. So we’re refunding everybody’s January bill on their February bill. Now, there’s two exceptions. There’s two cycles that have not printed yet. So on those the water usage will be there, but the dollar amount will be zero.”

Another adjustment the city is making is to go back to the old water rates for a period of time.

“We had a new water pricing going out, starting Jan. 1. We’re suspending that,” Walker said. “We’re going back to the old rates indefinitely. Now that might be two months, maybe three. We don’t know yet. We just want to be sure everything’s working properly for a couple of months before we go back and raise the rates to what they’re supposed to be.”