The dispute between the City of Billings and the Heights Water District — over the city’s software error that led to the Heights being undercharged for water — has been going on for more than three years. Unfortunately, the “dispute” is now in the courts, which seems ridiculous to us.
Yes, the city made an error. Way back in January 2015, it converted to new utility billing software. In 2017, a city audit discovered that the new software carried an incorrect “conversion factor” for the specific type of water meter that only the Heights Water District uses.
The error wasn’t chicken feed. From the time the new software was implemented to the time when the error was discovered, the city underbilled Heights by nearly $3 million. Heights continued to bill its customers correctly for the full amount. When the error was discovered, Heights began to pay the city the correct amount going forward, but refused to pay the undercharged amounts. Heights doesn’t dispute that it received the water and charged its customers full price for it. It just doesn’t want to pay what it owes, because the city made an error.
The city says it has tried to work with the Heights district. It has offered to let the district make payments to the city over the same time period it took the city to discover the error. Now, with interest, the amount the city says Heights owes is nearly $4 million (although the city has offered to waive the interest).
The city says it has made multiple attempts to resolve the situation, through formal mediation and informally, to no result. Heights has offered to pay roughly half of the underbilled amount.
So now the two entities are in court.
“It’s in litigation now, in the hands of the lawyers, so I can’t talk about it,” said Heights board chair Wynn Pippin on Thursday.
Clearly, there are other pieces to the strained relationship between the Heights Water District Board and the City of Billings. But equally clearly, Heights owes the money. There’s no reason the city should take loss of more than $1 million because of the error. It’s not like Heights is out the money — they got the water and sold it to their customers. And it’s also not like the Heights district doesn’t have the cash. The district has $10 million in reserves.
As Pippin pointed out, the losers here are the taxpayers, paying legal fees for two entities that should be able to work together.
“Some of our customers are in the city,” she said, “So they’re paying for our lawyers and their lawyers.”
We have a better idea: Heights should pay this bill, which is clearly owed, and let’s move on.
If there are other issues to examine, other ways that the district has not been treated fairly, those issues should get a fair airing. But let’s not confuse those things with the fundamental truth: Heights got the water, paid far less than the agreed rate for it, and then sold it to its customers at regular rates.
At this point, it’s more than a dispute. It’s a moral issue.
The district should take advantage of the city’s offer to waive the interest.
And it should pay up.
The Billings Gazette Editorial Board consists of President and Publisher Dave Worstell, Regional Editor David McCumber and Chief Photographer Larry Mayer.