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Lake Worth works to improve utility billing, stem money losses

The city’s electric and water utilities are plugging away on fixes for a troubled system that was said to be losing about $1 million a year, due to inaccurate billing and metering.

That was the estimate of an outside consulting firm that reviewed the utilities’ efficiency in April 2012.

The metering and billing problems dated back at least to 2009 in some cases.

When current utilities director Clay Lindstrom arrived three years ago as an assistant director, the work was cut out for him and his staff. The department lacked a set of standards and procedures and did not even have a customer service handbook, which has since been written.

Because some of the problems seemed concentrated in large commercial customers, staff first reviewed billing after the consultant, Burton and Associates, determined that at least one customer, Palm Beach State College, was being billed for water and fire line service but not sewer service, which cost the water utility more than $80,000 in lost fees.

The utility has 2,898 small and 18 large commercial accounts, including the Palm Beach County School District, which operates four schools served by the utility.

When Lindstrom and his staff followed the check-up procedure recommended by the 2012 audit, they determined that the losses were probably not as high as the consultant had estimated. For example, in a number of cases what appeared to be a change in usage by a customer was in fact a customer that was no longer in business.

Since then, Lindstrom was able to move one of his employees from conservation to the key post of monitoring losses through meter malfunctions and other sources.

A new water utility director, Larry Johnson, is now on board. Lindstrom was managing both electric and water utilities before Johnson arrived.

Utility staffers are now also replacing meters, some of which date back to the 1950s, in a city that just celebrated its 100th anniversary. Meters that were tested varied from zero to 90 percent accuracy.

“Meters are like people,” said Lindstrom. “As they age, they get slower.”

The meters are now on a schedule for replacement. So far, 1,914 of about 23,000 residential meters have been replaced, with more to come. Correcting meter readings brought in $56,686 in billing, said Joel Rutsky, the utility’s newly named revenue protection supervisor.

Last but not least, there’s an “aggressive” crackdown on power stealers, a group so resourceful that a list of their inventive techniques would serve as a handy instruction manual. One instance involved a strategically placed butter knife, said Lindstrom.

“There are several ways to do this and they’re all very unsafe,” Lindstrom said.

The power stealers have been found all over the city’s distribution area, used by well-off homeowners as well as poorer ones. Rutsky said staff has so far identified 158 customers that were tampering, accounting for another $35,000 in lost fees.

When they catch scofflaws, the utility can charge them for estimated loss of revenue, based on history and other factors. But since the 2013 state Legislature passed a law that makes power stealing a crime, utility staffers can now call the Palm Beach County Sheriff, too.

The electric utility still has plenty of work to do. As city commissioners mull whether to keep or sell it, crucial updating of the system is still going on, paid for by a $16 million bond issue. The electrical system uses two distribution systems, one of which is “very antiquated,” said Lindstrom.They are converting to a distribution system that matches current industry standards.

Long criticized for its rates, which are higher than those of the much larger Florida Power & Light, and its long power outages after hurricanes, the utility has reduced its rates by 11 to 17 percent in the past three years. In addition, Lake Worth offers a five-year step-down discount plan to businesses locating there, Lindstrom said.

A new business can get a 26 percent reduction on its utility bill, 20 percent the second year, and so on.

Then there’s that pesky reliability issue, but there has been progress on that front, too.

“Three years ago, we were one of the worst for overall reliability,” said Lindstrom. “Now we’re in the top 10.”

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