Shut-offs

By ANTHONY WARREN,

Jackson officials going after unpaying water customers

The new year will mean new efforts by the city of Jackson to recoup an estimated $20 million in outstanding water revenues.

The city ramped up its water shut-off efforts to recoup funds on about 20,000 delinquent accounts, according to Public Works Director Robert Miller.

“We have 20,000 customers in some form of delinquency. If I do 200 (accounts) a day over 100 business days, I can touch every customer,” he said. “That’s my expectation.

The city began cut-offs on November 1. Since then, water and sewer billing has notified 782 customers that they were in danger of having their services suspended for nonpayment, Miller told the one-percent oversight commission.

“We began sending out letters on November 1. We started turning them off on November 15,” he said.

Miller told commissioners he wanted to update them on the billing progress, because the city used one-percent funds earlier this year to help keep the water enterprise fund afloat.

Of those, 341 customers were temporarily disconnected, nine customers paid their bills in full and 130 set up payment plans, one customer had filed bankruptcy and three had accounts closed, documents show.

During the investigation of those accounts, billing officials discovered that 21 ratepayers had meter problems, 10 had manual meters and 13 had meters that were not in the system.

Nearly $179,000 in outstanding payments had been collected as a result.

Miller, though, estimates that at least $20 million remains outstanding. “You have 20,000 customers (and) you assume that each one owes $1,000, that would be $20 million,” he said.

He told the commission billing was careful in choosing which accounts to target first. 

“My expectation is if you’ve gone four years without turning someone off and the time you want to turn them off is around Thanksgiving and Christmas, tread real(ly) carefully,” he said.

 

Customers chosen were  “hand selected” and had not made a payment on their accounts in two years. “There might be a reason to be behind. There might be a meaningful reason … but not making a payment in two years, I can’t cover that,” Miller said.

 

Beginning water shutoffs is the next step in normalizing the collections system, and the next chapter in a long effort to correct problems associated with the Siemens contract.

The city brought on Siemens in 2012 to completely overhaul the city’s water system. The overhaul included replacing some 60,000 to 65,000 analog water meters with electronic ones, replacing some broken water and sewer mains, and automating the billing system.

The contract was for approximately $91 million, and was touted as being “revenue-neutral,” meaning that the contract would pay for itself over time with revenues generated from the new, more accurate equipment.

However, collections only got worse after the work was completed in 2016, and in the spring the city learned that some 22,000 customers were not receiving bills.

In April, the city council amended its contract to bring Siemens back on to help “unstrand” those bills and correct problems with the billing system. Siemens wrapped up that work recently.

Now, the city is working to address about 8,400 “stranded” bills, which Miller suspects became stranded as a result of faulty equipment in the field, rather than the billing system.

Accounts are considered “stranded” if customers have not received their bill in several months.

“Either the meter is not communicating with the repeater and collector, or the reading that is coming in is not usable,” he said. “We don’t have enough field personnel to go out and research the problems, so the accounts get stranded.”

 

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