OverhaulBy ANTHONY WARREN,
Mayor tackling problems in water billing department
A major overhaul of Jackson’s water billing department is under way, a sign Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba is fulfilling his promise to fix the city’s billing issues by early next year.
The overhaul includes reorganizing the department, implementing new training for existing personnel, and hiring new computer programmers to help maintain the city’s new billing system, Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine said.
“We are aligning pay scales, writing new job descriptions and requiring certifications so employees will have the skills to stay up with the new technology,” he said. “We’re building from the ground up.”
Major components of the plan include putting personnel in the “right place” to ensure meters are properly read and to ensure the system is correctly adjusting bills that are “out of tolerance.”
“We have to align our internal processes so we (can) work with the computer systems that make adjustments for bills that are out of tolerance – either (significantly) over or under what is expected for that account, based on the account’s history,” Blaine explained. “This is a very intricate system and requires a high level of expertise to manage.”
The city will be bringing on three computer programmers to write code for the system, but will not be hiring additional employees. Water billing has approximately 65 staffers, Blaine told the Sun.
“We have the right number of people. We’re just going to organize them under one structure to improve reporting.”
Jackson’s billing system has been plagued with problems for years. Many of those problems stem from the city’s $91 million “energy performance contract” with Siemens.
In 2012, Jackson brought on the international firm to do a citywide upgrade of its water billing infrastructure. The firm replaced some 65,000 residential water meters and 5,000 commercial meters, installed a new electronic meter reading system, and built and installed new billing software to replace the city’s much older system. Some underground water and sewer mains were also replaced as part of the deal.
The contract was approved under former Mayor Harvey Johnson and much of the implementation occurred under former Mayor Tony Yarber.
The upgrades were designed to improve collections and help the city better pinpoint water leaks in real time. At the time, Johnson touted the deal as “revenue neutral,” meaning it would pay for itself.
However, the project was bedeviled from the beginning. In some instances, crews initially installed incorrect water meters, resulting in significantly higher water bills for customers. (The meters measured water usage in gallons, rather than cubic feet. The city charges $3.21 per hundred cubic feet.)
A temporary stop work order was issued until the meter situation was worked out.
While some residents received higher bills, many more received no statements at all. In January 2016, the Sun reported that an estimated 10,000 customers were not receiving monthly bills, even after the Siemens work had been completed.
As recent as this summer, one customer told the Sun that he was not receiving regular statements.
Billing problems exacerbated another problem for the city, causing its already low water collection rate to plummet.
A water and sewer investigation conducted by a private consulting firm revealed that water collections dropped dramatically between 2011 and 2015.
In 2011, the city brought in 97 percent of projected water and sewer revenues, compared with 94 percent in 2012, 91 percent in 2013 and 88 percent in 2014.
This year, the city is on target to bring in just 80 percent of its projected revenues.
“We’re losing between $1.5 million and $2 million a month,” Blaine told the city council’s budget committee recently.
“Once we’re able to capture that revenue, we’ll be able to leverage those dollars and bring them to the market ... to use toward our integrated infrastructure plan.”
Water and sewer fees go into a special enterprise account and can be used specifically for maintenance and upgrades to the city’s water and sewer systems.
Jackson needs the monies as it grapples with how to pay for billions of dollars in infrastructure needs, including what could be between $615 million and $800 million in federally mandated sewer repairs.
The city is required to bring its sewer system into compliance with federal water quality laws as part of a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency.
The city needs another $405 million to address its aging water system, according to a 2013 study conducted by Neel-Schaffer Engineering.
Jackson has approximately 1,100 miles of water pipelines. Of that, larger transmission lines account for 220 miles, and smaller mains total around 800 miles. Twenty percent of the city’s lines are 100 years or older; 30 percent are 60 years or older; and 30 percent are 40 years or older, according to the report.