Eight years after a previous administration told residents the Siemens contract would eliminate the need for meter readers, the city of Jackson is considering bringing them back, at least temporarily, to help ensure customers are getting correct bills.
Public Works Director Robert Miller is proposing spending $200,000 to contract with a private firm to read meters.
The contract is needed because too many customers are still receiving flat rate bills, which are being issued to homes and businesses where meter data is not available.
The news comes months after the city settled its lawsuit with Siemens Industry for nearly $90 million,
The meter readers would be a temporary solution to help increase the city’s water revenues.
Collections are down about $3 million a month, due in part, to malfunctioning or broken equipment in the field, Miller said.
“There are 86 repeaters not functioning and 16,507 meters not delivering automated readings,” he said.
Repeaters and transmitters are part of a mesh network that carries data from the meters to the billing office. And until that equipment is dealt with, Miller said the city will continue to experience billing problems.
“There’s a lot of stuff we’ve been able to do to get bills out, but we have still not dealt with the underlying problem,” he said. “We are not getting usable readings from meters on a monthly basis.”
The meters were installed as part of a $90 million “energy performance contract” with Siemens Industry.
The city brought on the firm in 2012 to completely overhaul the billing system. Work included installing some 60,000 residential water meters and 5,000 commercial meters, installing a new billing system, and installing a new mesh network that would allow meters to communicate with the billing office.
The project was sold as being revenue-neutral, meaning the increased revenues and more accurate billing that resulted from the work would pay for the contract over time.
However, those savings never materialized. The city sued the firm, and Siemens settled the suit for the full amount of the contract.
Mayor Chokwe Lumumba has been working to correct problems related to the contract since he took office.
In November, the city implemented “flat-rate” billing to ensure all customers were receiving a statement.
And in December, the city moved its billing software onto a cloud-based system.
Previously, the software was located on city servers, which constantly crashed as a result of age and capacity issues.
Even with those fixes, Jackson’s water revenues are expected to come up about $34 million short this year.
Miller said $11.7 million of that is a result of flat-rate bills. More than 13,500 of Jackson’s 52,000 customers are receiving flat-rate statements, which are for around $63 a month.
The amount is based on what a household would be charged for using 100 gallons of water a day. The amount is far less than some customers should be paying.
Customers receive flat-rate bills once their accounts become “stranded.” Bills become stranded when the billing office no longer receives information from their meters.
Meters don’t transmit data when they malfunction or when repeaters and transmitters in the field are broken.
Repeaters are typically installed on utility poles and have failed for multiple reasons: poles being knocked down during traffic accidents, lightning strikes, battery failures, and manufacturing defects.
When repeaters and transmitters go down, that information is not transmitted, meaning the software does not have the data needed to issue a correct bill.
Miller is proposing spending $160,000 to replace repeaters, and hopes to replace them by the middle of next month.
The remaining $22.5 million in losses come from problems with commercial accounts.
In addition to temporary fixes, Miller is proposing spending $1.5 million to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the existing meter system to determine costs for repairing or replacing the system. He also is suggesting spending $8 million to determine if the billing software should be replaced.
Repeater and meter reader costs would come from an emergency loan, while the consulting fees would come from the Siemens settlement.
The settlement was for approximately $90 million. Of that, about $30 million was paid to attorneys working on the case, and another $7 million was used to retire a previous emergency water loan.