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J.D. Power ranks Water Authority among worst for customer satisfaction

The Erie County Water Authority ranked eighth worst among the 88 largest water providers in the country on a customer satisfaction report by J.D. Power.

The Water Authority's ranking has fallen each year for the last three years that J.D. Power has conducted the water utility customer survey.

Among major water providers in the Northeast, the ECWA ranked third from last, unlike Monroe County, which tied for first place with Boston.

"It's well below the national average," said Andrew Heath, senior director of the utility practice at J.D. Power, a private company that provides rankings, consumer insights, consulting, data and analytics.

Heath said the Erie County Water Authority's rankings were reasonably high in 2016, compared with other water providers, but they have fallen every year since. On a scale of 1000, the authority received a ranking of 719 in 2016, compared with only 669 now.

The average for all 18 major water utility companies in the Northeast region for this year was 709.

Robert J. Lichtenthal Jr., deputy director of the authority, said the survey was done without any involvement from the Water Authority. He questioned how the data was collected, given that water users in the City of Buffalo and other individual municipalities throughout the county are not serviced by the Erie County Water Authority.

"This was done independent of us," he said. "Without being able to match it up with what we look at and know, I put it in the category of opinion versus fact."

Heath said J.D. Power surveyed more than 300 residential water authority customers and used ZIP code information to help ensure the customers contacted fell under the ECWA umbrella.

They also asked customers to verify the authority's name and logo. Even so, Heath acknowledged there was a chance some respondents may have been confused about their water provider, though Heath said Buffalo ZIP codes were excluded.

The Erie County Water Authority received particularly poor marks in the areas of communication, meaning information customers heard from the Water Authority, as well as about the authority, from outside sources; conservation, including how the organization manages water and helps customers conserve water; and price.

Erie County Water Authority

The authority has faced extensive public criticism and news coverage over the past year regarding its political leadership and hiring practices, and bad publicity for its Sturgeon Point water main break last summer. The authority also kept residential water bills stable in 2017, but raised them for 2018.

The J.D. Power findings suggest that these may be contributing factors to the water authority's diminished 2018 ranking.

"In many ways, it's all perception, but that perception is based on what's going on in reality," Heath said.

Lichtenthal said the Water Authority has no way of verifying J.D. Power's data, since the survey details are only available to paying clients.

The authority conducted its own customer survey of 600 ratepayers in December 2014, which found the "overall perceptions of the ECWA for the quality of water, safety and reliability are exceptional," the ECWA report stated. Customer service also received high marks.

The overall opinion of the water authority in the 2014 study, conducted by Barry Zeplowitz and Associates, was 83 percent.

According to J.D. Power, the authority's weakest spots aren't in the areas of water safety, which continues to meet the water quality standards of the Environmental Protection Agency. Instead, weak spots appear to be more tied to matters of public perception and cost, though all categories appear to have suffered, dropping the water authority's score well below the national average.

"Even just two years ago, the first time we did the study, that was not the case," Heath said.

He added that on the upside, the Northeast is generally blessed with access to high-quality water, unlike other parts of the country.

Lichtenthal defended the costs of residential water bills, saying the rising costs are common to many water providers struggling with aging infrastructure.

He said roughly a third of residential ratepayers pay only the quarterly minimum charge.

"I don't think I've ever read an article nationally, regarding the price of water, where the price of water is going down," he said. "I don't think we're outliers with what's going on nationally."

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