The city of Jackson is taking steps to build, install and test a new water/sewer billing system in the coming year.
“By the time we get to the end of the year (in 2021), we hope to be at full capacity and receiving all of the revenue we should,” said Robert Blaine, Ph.D., chief administrative officer for the city of Jackson.
Gone will be the days when some residents received grossly inaccurate water/sewer bills and others went months without bills because of faulty billing.
Problems date to 2012 when the city invested $90 million in a new metering and billing system from Siemens Industry, and it began to fail almost immediately. Savings of about $122 million over a 16-year span were projected but losses as much as $24 million a year in uncollected water and sewer revenue resulted.
The city settled with Siemens for about $90 million earlier this year. About $8.7 million from the settlement is being used to update the billing system.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told the City Council at its Dec. 22 meeting that the updates are needed because the current billing software is at the end of its life and cannot be updated. “Even if we didn’t have the challenges we have, we would have to replace the billing system,” he said.
Blaine said lessons have been learned from the “very bad experience” with Siemens and the city has a new set of partners for the new billing system. “We’re not doing this ourselves,” he said.
Partners include a project manager, who works exclusively in the field of automated meter systems, and Mythics Inc., a systems integrator, consulting firm, managed services provider and an Oracle resale partner that represents the Oracle product line across cloud, software, support, hardware and engineered systems.
On Dec. 22, the City Council approved a $6.9 million contract with Mythics to handle the installation of $1.6-million worth of Oracle software.
In January, the first phase of the new system, which is upgrading software and creating a digital self-service portal for customers will get under way, Blaine said. That should take about six months.
In July, the second phase of the project, which is meter device management, will begin and take until September to implement, Blaine said. Meter device management involves converting the vast amount of data delivered by the smart metering system into information for bills.
The system works like this: Each water meter is equipped with a wireless transmitter that sends a signal to a receiver, which is located on a telephone pole, and then a collector, which is located on select water towers. Each collector sends in a set of readings for a particular part of the city to the meter device management system.
One problem with the Siemens system was that it assumed a customer was no longer at a location if a reading wasn’t obtained from a meter three times in a row, Blaine said. “Because of that, we had large numbers of customers across the city not receiving bills,” he said.
The third phase of installation of the new system will be testing to make sure everything is operating as it should.
“We’ll be doing end user testing and testing integration to make sure everything can ‘talk’ to each other,” Blaine said. “Once we have everything working on the billing system we will assess problems with the meters. Some of that work we’re doing right now.”
The system includes 56,000 water meters, 1,200 repeaters and seven repeaters, Blaine said. “We’re constantly making sure the repeaters and collectors are up,” he said.
For about six months, the city will operate two water/sewer billing systems, Blaine said. “We’ll be building out the new system while phasing out the old one,” he said.
Last year, Mythics was awarded a $7 million contract from the city to move water/sewer billing system from the city’s old servers and put in the Oracle cloud environment, Blaine said. No problems were encountered, he said.
“It means we can run virtual tests of the system,” he said. “As we’re building out each piece of the system, it will be thoroughly tested. We didn’t have that the first time.”
Another part of the process will be a new human resources plan that will be put in place for the water/sewer billing department.
“It’s one of the things we’ll bring to the City Council next,” Blaine said. “We have to make sure the organizational structure aligns with the new software.
The old servers in the water billing department took up to 14 hours to run one of the city’s eight ledger of bills, which amounts to 12,000 bills, he said. Now that same task takes about 45 minutes, he said.
“The thing that will give our customers the most amount of confidence is the shift to a new customer to meter product, Blaine said. “It will solve all of the challenges we had as far as making sure that a reading at someone’s house turns into an accurate bill.
A digital portal will be part of the system so that customers can handle issues and keep up with their household’s water consumption if they so choose.
Blaine encourages anyone with billing issues to call the water/sewer office.
“We have customer service agents that can remediate their bill,” he said. “We can fix the problems. We want to make sure customers contact us if they’re having problems. We don’t want to put anyone under a hardship because of a bill.”
Blaine expects revenue collected to increase as each phase of the new billing system is implemented.
“We should be getting between $80-$90 million,” he said. “Right now, we’re at $60-$70 million. Revenue from water bills is how the city provides for infrastructure improvements.”