City talks achievements, challenges with water billing system
Nearly 92 percent of Jackson’s 52,000 customers are now receiving regular water bills, a sign the city has made significant progress in addressing problems in its water billing department.
However, Public Works Director Robert Miller said the city is not out of the woods yet, saying several challenges are still on the horizon.
Among them, bills are still being “stranded” because of problems with the system. And the water department is still being operated on its monthly collections, after the system’s cash reserves ran out last year.
Consultants identified 24 items that need to be fixed to prevent bills from being stranded, but the work was on hold last week until the department had enough revenues from collections to address them.
On top of that, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba recently announced that public works was investigating potential theft in the billing department. That investigation is being conducted with the help of the Jackson Police Department (JPD) and is expected to conclude in the next four to six weeks.
Even with those challenges, Miller said progress has been made. “In February 2018, we were billing 64 percent of customers and collecting on 75 percent of what was being billed,” he said. “In February 2019, we billed 92 percent of customers and collected on 95 percent of that.”
March numbers were not immediately available.
“My definition of success is when we get a bill to every customer based on metered consumption. When I got here, we were failing, because we were not getting bills out,” he said.
“What it comes down to is we want customers to receive their bills, trust their bills and pay their bills.”
Jackson’s billing problems are a result of a $91 million energy performance contract with Siemens.
Jackson brought on the firm in 2012 to completely overhaul the city’s water system. The work called for replacing all residential and commercial water meters and replacing the previous billing system with an automated one.
The upgrades were supposed to make the city’s system more efficient, improve collections and help customers detect leaks at their homes or businesses.
The new “customer care and billing software” went into operation in September 2015.
Fast forward a little more than two years, more than a third of the city’s customers were not receiving regular bills, and the water/sewer enterprise fund was nearly bankrupt.
At the time, the city estimated 15,000 customers were not receiving monthly statements, a number that was later revised up to more than 23,000.
Problems resulted from a perfect storm of complications. Employees had not been trained to use the billing system, while equipment in the field was not working properly.
Siemens was charged with putting a new electronic meter reading system in place. Work included replacing some 60,000 analog water meters with electronic ones and installing a series of “collectors” and “repeaters” that transmit meter readings to the billing office.
“The meter … registers consumption, accumulates data (and) transfers that data to the collectors. The collectors go to the repeaters, which carry the data to the system,” Miller said.
The system was designed to cut out meter readers, which would save the city money and cut down on the potential for fraud. It would also allow billing employees to shut off or turn on services at the billing office, rather than having to do it on-site.
Said Miller, “The system is good when it works right.”
But with that convenience comes numerous pitfalls. In some cases, meters are not be recognized by the billing system. In other cases, meters might report significant changes in water usage, which the billing system doesn’t accept.
Repeaters or collectors can be taken out by lightning strikes, meaning data for hundreds of customers is not transmitted. Since its installation, several lighting strikes have occurred, according to Carla Gammill, deputy director of public works administration.
When the system malfunctions, it will issue estimated bills, based on previous months’ usage. After three estimated bills, the system quits sending out statements, causing them to get “stranded.”
Siemens was brought back on last spring to address the backlog.
“They worked with me to get two major things done, to get up to 23,000 accounts billed, and to bring on Origin to provide an analysis of what to do next,” he said.
Work was for approximately $1.2 million and was completed on October 31, 2018.
In all, 21,640 accounts were corrected. Origin Consulting, a Siemens subcontractor, along with West Monroe Partners, a Chicago-based consulting firm, identified 24 fixes needed to prevent future bills from being stranded.
Miller told the council’s ad-hoc committee that he would need an additional $1 million to $2 million and another six months to a year to address those 24 fixes.
“Our first task was to get everybody a bill. Our second was to get an understanding of the problems with the system. Our third was to start using the full measure of our collection and crediting processes (to address) delinquent accounts and non-payments,” Miller said.
The city ramped up its collection process in November. And in January, Origin began work on the next round of stranded bills.
“When we started with Origin in January, they were to implement the West Monroe report and then transfer that knowledge to employees,” Miller said.
Work stopped in late January, because Origin didn’t have a contract in place. “I told them to start work. I didn’t have funding or council approval,” Miller said. “They got $400,000 into it and said they needed a signed contract.”
At a special meeting in March, the council approved paying Origin $389,000 for work completed, and agreed to continue the contract, pending increased revenues in the billing department.
Miller said he hopes to have the firm in place again this week. “We’re reviewing March’s numbers now and hope to bring them back on full time.”