A recent investigation into the Kansas City, MO, Water Services Department exposed how the city decided to tackle unpaid water bills and poor customer service by spending more money.
A July investigation by KCTV5 investigative reporter Eric Chaloux uncovered $13.1 million in unpaid water bills owed to the water department, some by unexpected entities.
Chaloux revealed how some prominent water customers were allowed to continue tapping the system despite their overdue accounts, while other residents faced shut-offs and court battles.
Recently hired communications director Kip Peterson says the KCTV5 investigation made an impact at the water department.
"Your story did highlight some questions," Peterson said. "Why do these delinquent accounts exist? And why are there so many? And what is the appropriate number and how do we whittle that list down? That is what we are doing right now."
While Peterson did not provide answers to those particular questions, he says there is progress to report since the KCTV5 investigation. He says the city has settled 1,000 delinquent accounts, collecting "well over a million dollars". Peterson says those payments are the result of recent developments within the water department.
"[There has been] new reorganization with customer service," he said, "new training, new staff and an increased focus on liens. [We are] bringing on new staff to implement liens and increase communications with customers."
Those changes come with a price, most notably the decision to increase the agency's public relations staff. These five workers, including Peterson, now make up the largest communications department of any city agency, with a combined payroll of $349,792. Add to that the more than $232,000 spent on two private firms since last year, to increase communication with customers.
"What I can say is customer service is a journey," Peterson said. "It's not a destination. You don't get there overnight."
Despite the successful collection of more than $1 million in unpaid bills, Peterson says the agency still doesn't have enough staff to make sure customers who fail to pay their bills do go dry.
"There are a lot of accounts that are delinquent but maybe they are receiving water services," he said. "The amount of accounts that need to be turned off far exceeds our man power to turn them off. We are looking to privatize that aspect."
The Aug. 31 list of delinquent accounts provided by the city to KCTV5 proves that point. Still listed among the 11,000 overdue bills is the Jackson County Sports Complex, which oversees the stadiums where the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals play.
In July, KCTV5 exposed the sports complex was carrying an unpaid storm water bill of $123,000. By the end of August, that amount had risen to more than $162,000. In mid-September, the complex's account was finally settled. The complex's executive director blamed a web of confusing water bills for the delay.
Based on the records provided to KCTV5 in late August, the following city, state and federal entities continue to receive water despite overdue storm water accounts:
United States Postal Service: $43,361.32
Southeast High School: $29,719.93
Kansas City Public Schools: $11,589.65
City of Independence: $10,023.09
City of Belton: $7,215.00
Jackson County, MO: $6,347.16
City of Gladstone: $3,230.26
That list prompted Chaloux to ask Peterson, "Should people in residential properties stop paying their storm water bills too, and nothing will happen to them?"
"That's a clown question," Peterson responded.
"That's a clown question?" repeated Chaloux. "OK, some people don't have to pay their bills. Others are forced to pay their bills. That's a clown question."
Meanwhile, the $250-an-hour consultant the city hired to create a top-to-bottom analysis of the water department is still working on his report. City officials say that report is expected any time.
Copyright 2012 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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