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City to pay back Highlands for overcharge

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By David Giuliani

The city will be paying back Highlands University for an overcharge of $600,000 for natural gas.

In 2007, the city put in a new meter at Highlands’ Connor Hall, but it incorrectly calculated the building’s gas usage by a factor of 10. The average bill jumped from an average of $3,000 a month to $30,000.

The Connor gas account was just one of 27 the university has with the city.

Recently, the City Council voted unanimously to give the university credits on its bills over the next 30 months, which was how long the overcharge lasted.

“Ouch. That’s a lot of money,” Councilman Andrew Feldman said after the vote.

Councilman Dave Romero said he wondered when residents would get repaid for the $10 million they were overcharged for natural gas for years. In 2008, the state auditor found that the city hadn’t been following its ordinance governing natural gas rates, which resulted in overcharges. That audit was prompted by an Optic investigation that revealed the problem.

Feldman said the alleged overcharge in that instance was nowhere near $10 million.

In the university’s case, Highlands officials said they had caught the overcharge two years ago and had been working with the city to solve the problem.

The university said it was amenable to a payment arrangement because the city contended it couldn’t afford a onetime payment to Highlands.

Utilities Director Ken Garcia said his department had gone to two companies to make sure the meter had a problem. Both firms found that it did.

He said his department would give training to employees to make sure such mistakes didn’t occur again.

Mayor Alfonso Ortiz said he was impressed that the natural gas utility had checked with two companies and planned to give the training.