Water department promises better service

Photo used under a Creative Commons license courtesy Angelo Gonzalez.

Sewer bills will soar and water bills increase, but at least Kansas City Water Services will listen to customer complaints and provide better service.

Water department officials promised that Tuesday and cited major gains this year in customer service, repairs and system upgrades.

Citizens and the city council have long criticized the department for things ranging from slow fixes on broken water mains to a lack of response on a wide range of problems.

The city hired a consultant, retired Kansas City Power & Light President Bill Downey, to make things better. He and department officials on Tuesday told the city council they have made vast improvements.

To start with, they are listening to the people they are charging so much more money.

The department hired 16 people to work in its call center, cutting the average speed of answering from a high of about 7 minutes last year to less than 30 seconds last month.

Water Services Department calls, average speed of answer, 2009 through 2012.

The abandonment rate – callers who tire of waiting and hang up – went from almost 30 percent in November of 2011 to 2.6 percent last month.

There are about 170,000 retail water department customers and they expect it to perform on a par with private utilities, officials said.

Those customers also have a right to expect more. Voters this year approved issuing $500 million more bonds for sewers and that means higher bills. The bonds are part of $2.5 billion in improvements that federal officials require over 25 years to stop wastewater overflows into streams and rivers.

The Kansas City Star reports that the average monthly sewer bill of about $34 now will almost double in five years, while water bills will also go up at lesser rates. Two years ago, the average monthly sewer bill was $25.60 and five years ago it was $19.

“We need to show them what they are getting for the increased investment,” department official Jim Mellem said Tuesday.

Officials said they said they doubled the number of ports where citizens can pay bills on the phone and will soon have clearer and better paper bills and more interactive social media sites.

Average number of days to repair a water main break, January 2010 through October 2012.

In a second straight year of record numbers of water main breaks, they greatly reduced line repair and street restoration – from an average of more than 40 days in July 2011 to about 20 days.

Also this year, they installed 880 fire hydrants, replaced 130 undersized 2” water mains and did 35 neighborhood projects. They also did the Middle Blue River solutions pilot project, the city’s first green infrastructure project designed to let storm water drain naturally.

They are bringing in engineering projects on time and under budget and have plans for $1 billion in capital improvements.

Councilman Jim Glover also noted that Kansas City has long had a reputation for some of the best tasting and cleanest water.

“We’re struggling with one end of the spectrum but not with that,” he said.

Councilwoman Cindy Circo praised the department for vast improvements in performance and attitude.

“We’ve used the water department as a whipping boy for a long time, maybe not without reason.”

Mayor Sly James said their quick and efficient hiring techniques that filled 100 vacancies could hold lessons for other areas of city government.

Overall, he said of the department, “There has been marked improvement, physical improvement, palpable improvement.”



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