When the state auditor's office recommended last year that the city of Youngstown cut its water-loss percentage by finding leaks or users who aren't being billed, you could almost hear suburban customers who pay a surcharge quip, "If the water department would only do its job, there wouldn't be a need to charge us a higher rate than what the city residents pay."
That has been the standard argument put forth by the suburbanites every time the city of Youngstown has tried to increase the surcharge. We shouldn't have to pay for the water department's inefficiencies, officeholders have contended.
It now turns out that the argument has no merit -- at least not in the opinion of Utility Revenue Management Co. of Houston, which had signed a three-year contract with the city to conduct the type of investigation recommended by the state auditor's office in its performance audit of Youngstown. After a year on the job, Utility Revenue Management and the city have agreed to end their relationship. Why?
Because the company has concluded that there isn't the amount of water loss and uncollected revenue that state auditors obviously assumed existed -- and suburbanites have been howling about for years.
It is now clear that the meter replacement program launched more than a decade ago and a new billing system instituted in 1993 are paying dividends. The fact that the city does not bill for about 22 percent of the water that passes through its system is not a reflection of mismanagement, as some may want to believe, but rather the cost of doing business.
Industry standard: No system delivers 100 percent of its water. The industry standard for not billing is between 10 percent and 20 percent, while there are cities around the country that can't account for 40 percent and even 50 percent of its water. A case in point: the long-standing problems that have plagued the city of Hubbard's water system.
But even though water loss is to be expected, the Youngstown Water Department still intends to determine where it is going. Since water that is used to put out fires, flush fire hydrants, clean streets, sewers and waterlines and hose down emergency demolition sites isn't metered, it is quite possible that such usage would account for most of the 22 percent loss.
As for its billing procedures, the department received high praise from Utility Revenue Management, which found about 15 accounts worth about $30,000 a year. In other cities the size of Youngstown, the company has uncovered 200 to 300 missing accounts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The situation is even worse in major metropolitan areas. In Pittsburgh, for example, Utility Revenue found an entire downtown office building that wasn't paying for its water.
Against that backdrop, Youngstown Water Department officials have every right to be proud -- and to dismiss the criticism from suburban customers, and some city residents, who are convinced that there is wholesale mismanagement and incompetence in City Hall.