Nearly 180 Palestine residents were cut off from the city's water supply last week and told they would need to pay a $50 reconnection fee. Of those, 111 never received notice prior to losing their water.
On Monday, council-members wanted to know why.
Mayor Steve Presley said the problem was aggravated by poor communication.
“The public needs to be informed,” he said. “That's where [City Manager] Leslie Cloer comes in. We have a responsibility to communicate to the public as quickly as possible, and that's where we failed.”
But most of the council's wrath was directed at Finance Director Jim Mahoney. They pressed him for answers to the city's frequent billing problems, and told him he needed to step up and take accountability for his failures.
“Are you in charge of that office,” District 6 Council-member Ann Connor asked Mahoney. “There is always some sort of problem; you can't always blame it on the computer.”
Mahoney told council-members the person responsible for the error that led to the mass cut-offs no longer works for the city, but Connor wasn't buying it.
“You need to step up,” she said. “You need to be aware of what's going on in your department, and say that it's your fault.”
After the work session, city secretary Teresa Herrera refused to give the Herald-Press the name of the employee Mahoney referred to, and said the newspaper would have to submit a formal freedom-of-information request to get it.
Mahoney said the city will refund all residents who were disconnected without notice, which appears to conflict with his earlier statement that the city would grant refunds on a case-by-case basis.
Herrera, formerly a supervisor for the billing department, audited the data and has identified all 111 residents due refunds.
Water bills for December were unexpectedly high, after a computer outage in the city's billing department prevented crews from checking water meters. With no accurate billing available, residents didn't know they were in arrears while they continued to receive water.
“I've personally swallowed every excuse given to me when water bills have been messed up,” District 1 Council-member Larissa Loveless said. “I don't want to hear anymore that it's the meter, or the computer.”
District 5 Council-member Dana Goolsby told Mahoney the amount of people sudden rate-hikes in their water bills was unacceptable.
“They're always told they have a leak, or they had high usage,” she told Mahoney. “That can't be the case for everyone, and we shut them off without having to provide them proof.”
Goolsby asked Mahoney who audits the meter-readings before cutting a resident's water off. Mahoney responded it was the terminated employee.
“Who audited that person's work,” she then asked. “Who was their supervisor?”
Mahoney responded he is the supervisor of the department, but could not audit the work, as he had not been trained in that area.
“We've just released someone from the city, when the person they go to for guidance is you,” Goolsby said. “How can you help your staff if you're not trained on this at all?”
Noting the city's high employee turnover, Cloer said holding one person accountable for this snafu would be unfair.
“But we did hold someone accountable, didn't we,” Goolsby said, referring to the terminated employee. “We have had a good deal of transition. To blame this all on transition is unacceptable.”
Utilities Director Felipe Garcia told the council some residents will see increases in their water usage when they receive new meters.
“The new meters have all tested accurate,” he said. “The old ones were letting a good deal of people get away with free water. You will see some increases then.”
District 2 Councilman Mitchell Jordan asked how the city plans to fix these problems.
Cloer told council-members there would be an internal job-posting soon.
“See, that's the problem,” Jordan said. “We already have a revolving door, and this is what happens. We need someone who is already trained, who can fix this problem for us and fast.”
Other council-members agreed.
“Something has to happen,” Goolsby said. “Communication has to improve. If I don't have the information, I can't help our residents.”
Loveless said communication should be easy, because it's free.
“We talk about the budget, and tax dollars,” Loveless said. “Communication doesn't cost us anything.”