County jail water bill has officials sputtering

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More than double highest bill in 2011 – but no explanation why

By Damon Lawrence

For Tim Phillips, being chief deputy of the Roane County Sheriff’s Office is about more than finding bad guys.
Lately it’s been about finding the reason behind the jail’s exorbitant water bills. The average bill the first nine months of this year is $14,011.
According to a spreadsheet Phillips provided, the highest bill the jail got in 2011 was $7,244.61.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” the chief deputy said about the increase.
The city of Kingston is the jail’s water provider.
“It appears they’re using that much water,” Kingston City Manager Jim Pinkerton said about the jail’s water bills.
Phillips said the jail’s population has been roughly the same this year when compared to 2011, but the water bills have not. For June it was $16,469.43, July was $17,642.23, August was $21,459.69 and September was $15,715.91.
“If you were to look at the water bills, consistently for two-and-a-half years they were fine, and then all of a sudden it’s just went way out of whack,” Phillips said. “There’s really nothing that justifies one way or the other why it’s like that. We can’t put our finger on it.”
It’s not for a lack of trying.
American Leak Detection has been in with a sonar device and couldn’t find a problem.
Vaughn & Melton, a consulting firm, and Kingston water officials were at the jail on Wednesday looking into the problem.
Phillips said the county has also consulted with Barger and Sons locally.
“We’ve done just about everything we can do imaginable and still haven’t been able to find a leak,” Phillips said.
A leak might not be the problem.
“If it’s in fact not a leak, there’s something there at the jail that is not functioning properly causing water to run,” Phillips said. “We’re doing everything in our power to figure out if it’s an equipment malfunction, if it’s some kind of break in the waterline or if we’re really consuming that much water, which I would find that hard to believe.”
Phillips said he doesn’t believe it’s a consumption issue because the plumbing fixtures the inmates use are on a timer.
“If you push the button on the sink to wash your hands, it’s on like a minute-timer,” he said. “It’s not like you can just turn a faucet on back there and let it run. Everything that’s plumbed in the jail portion is on a timer.”
The high bills depleted the sheriff’s office water budget, and there’s still more than six months left in the fiscal year.
“We just had a resolution where we added $30,000 to their water line (in the budget),” county budget director Kaley Walker said.
“That’s not even going to come close to covering it,” Phillips predicted. “If the bill is $15,000 the next two months, that money is gone.”
Finding another water provider isn’t an option.
“The reason we get water from Kingston is because that’s the waterline that’s there,” Roane County Executive Ron Woody said. “It’s kind of like your electricity. You have to buy it from the provider that goes by your street.”
Phillips said the city has been good about working with the county to try and identify what’s going on.
“If they’re saying we’re using that much water, until we can prove we’re not, we’re using that much water,” he said.
Walker said the county will try to get some of its money refunded if it can pinpoint a problem.
“We have no idea what the issue is,” she said. “It could be that the meter is reading wrong, the flow is off, it could be one of a number of things, and we haven’t been able to narrow it down.”
Pinkerton said the city recently pulled the jail’s water meter.
“We’ve replaced that meter just to be sure there’s no problems,” he said. “I think they’re supposed to read that meter in the next day or two, so we’ll be able to compare the last month under the old meter with the new month under the new meter.”
The city raised its water rates 5 percent for the 2012-13 fiscal year, but the jail bills have been spiking since January — well before the rate increase went into effect.
“We should know a little more when we read this meter for the last month to compare the meters,” Pinkerton said. “I’d be surprised if that’s where the problem is, but of course we want to verify that.”