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Pine Bluff: Utility hasn't paid yet

by Eplunus Colvin | May 31, 2021 at 4:40 a.m.
FILE - Liberty Utilities (Pine Bluff Commercial/Byron Tate)

Pine Bluff Wastewater Utility officials say they still have not been paid approximately $188,000 they say is owed to the city by Liberty Utilities.

Ken Johnson, general manager of the Pine Bluff system, said he has had numerous conversations with Liberty Utilities Vice President Michael Beatty requesting the amount be paid in a timely manner, and so far, no payment has been submitted.

"We pay them $7,000 a month to do billing for us," said Johnson. "We are still waiting for them to do what they are contractually obligated to do and that is to bill for those accounts and provide those revenues to Pine Bluff Wastewater Utility."

Johnson saw what he has said was a drastic decline in revenue from the water company and hired a Dallas accounting firm to do a forensic audit of Liberty's billing and collection services for the city.

On Jan. 30, 2020, BKD was asked to perform an independent investigation into the payments received by the city's wastewater utility from January 2018 through January 2020.

After obtaining monthly customer-level billing and collection activities for that time period, the accounting firm found decreases in billings. According to the summary report, about $188,000 in total billing anomalies was found to be unaccounted for, according to Johnson.

A more in-depth analysis was performed in October and November by the firm, which specifically looked at months for which customer meters did not report consumption.

The analysis focused on customers in 2019 who had nonzero reads in 2018 and compared the 2019 zero-read bills to the 2018 nonzero average.

According to the report, those meters were likely broken but were not identified and fixed in a timely manner resulting in some $167,000 in lost revenue.

"Some customers were not billed that should have been billed," said Johnson, who added that the customer may possibly have to pay the money owed unless Liberty Utilities covers those amounts. "The customer, based on what Liberty is telling us, they would have to be billed for that service that was provided that they did not collect on."

Liberty requested a two-month extension to give the company time to calculate the exact amount owed, but a letter from Beatty dated May 5th requests that Pine Bluff Wastewater identify the customers that owe for wastewater services.

"As Liberty has stated in the past, we will work in good faith to collect any amounts PBWW believes is due once PBWW identifies the customers that owe for wastewater services," said Beatty in the letter to Johnson.

According to Beatty, Liberty cannot agree to pay a lump sum amount without knowing which customers are claimed to owe for wastewater services, but Johnson said he does not feel it is Pine Bluff Wastewater Utility's responsibility to identify the amount that each customer on the list owes.

Johnson said Liberty Utilities has a contractual obligation to accurately bill and collect.

"That's the correct thing to do and that's what is expected because after all, we paid them $7,000 a month to bill for us on those accounts," said Johnson. "We just hope that Liberty will be transparent and will meet the contractual obligation on their part and provide Pine Bluff Waste Water Utility the revenues that are due to us, because that is the amicable thing to do."

Johnson said since the water crisis in February and after the winter storm, he has requested payment for Liberty relating to the outstanding revenues of 2019. He said he hopes that matter is resolved without having to take further action, simply stating "pay what is due to us".

"The winter storm and the impact it had, we're sorry that that happened to them and the citizens of Pine Bluff suffered the consequences," said Johnson. "We were glad to assist them in resolving some of these water leaks throughout the city, but money is still owed to us."

Attempts to contact Liberty were unsuccessful.

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