Alliance Water Resources partners with communities to solve a variety of water and wastewater operational challenges. The most common of these challenges are employing professional, licensed operators and meeting regulatory compliance. Often, however, many of the issues that communities face are related to operating costs and a lack of financial stability, which stem from a wide variety of causes. For one particular community, the problem lied in an unusual situation which caused more than 250 wastewater customers to go undetected for several years.
The Alliance partner community in this case study is a county water district located atop a mountain in the southeastern United States, serving more than 240 water customers and approximately 725 wastewater customers, about a third of which are located at nearby resorts. Prior to the partnership, the water district experienced excessive staff turnover, resulting in an absence of teamwork and guidance and preventing operations from being performed at the highest possible levels. It also resulted in a lack of communication which allowed 250 wastewater customers of off-site sewer systems to connect without being billed for monthly service.
When Alliance began the partnership, they implemented an audit to determine why the sewer revenue of the district seemed unusually low. The audit, which included talks with local homeowners’ associations and other research, found discrepancies between the billing roster and the owner list of cabins at the off-site resorts. Also, a rate increase which had been approved several months before Alliance began work there had not been implemented. The previous office manager had not taken the time to update the billing software with the revised rates and had not kept up with growth in the off-site resorts.
Alliance staff met with all off-site representatives and the local Department of Environment and Conservation to determine necessary changes. At first, there was a bit of resistance from undetected customers. Alliance worked to educate people on what had transpired and the detriment the lack of fees had caused and would continue to cause to the community as a whole. Evan Romo, Division Manager, says “The utility is not in the business to make money. It’s in the business to provide clean water to communities while simultaneously protecting the environment. That does come with a cost that often people don’t think about.” Romo says that after Alliance’s education efforts most newly detected customers were satisfied.
After completing the audit process, the district recognized a 29% increase in billable sewer customers ($7,800 per month in additional revenue) plus the collection of approximately $150,000 in unbilled revenue. This additional revenue for the district has resulted in substantial benefits to the wastewater system, providing the funds to make much-needed repairs to equipment as well as purchase new equipment where needed. The district has been able to better serve their communities, and efficiencies across the board with operations, billing and customer service have been improved. The discovery and reparations of this financial oversight have also helped to build credibility with financial institutions.