Utility Billing Response

Due to recent citizen inquiries regarding their water bills, we feel it necessary to issue a status report in which City Council and citizens can draw facts from in order to clarify any concerns they may have regarding the operations surrounding their water bills.

The Issues With Utility Billing
Utility Billing has been deteriorating over the past several years due to several factors such as:
  • Meter reading software and hardware being ineffective due to the transmitter battery life or transmitters being vandalized and/or broken
  • Numerous personnel changes
  • Training time of new personnel in all facets of operations, from simple cash handling to the mobile computing system which coordinates the meter reading software system with the billing and integrated financial software
Background Information
This information has previously been reported during City Council meetings.

Transmitter Maintenance Problems
Approximately 12 years ago, the city invested in the automatic read system in order to reduce manpower and improve efficiency and accuracy in meter reading and billing, which was the cutting edge of technology. The transmitters installed at each meter had a battery life of approximately 10 years before a loss of power prevents the receiver in the truck from reading the signal as they drive by.

As the transmitters failed, meter readers had to begin manually reading those meters. The numbers requiring manual reading have gradually grown over time, with numbers increasing exponentially in years 11 and 12 after the expected 10 year battery life.

Personnel Issues
When the system was new, over time personnel began to lose appreciation for the specific location of meters and the continuity of routes when setting up accounts, which complicates the efforts and problems in manual reading. In addition, the system provider changed to an improved transmitter requiring a new receiver unit (computer hardware) and the original transmitters were to be phased out.

Unfortunately, the city did not invoke an aggressive replacement effort (essentially 10 years without rate increases to fund maintenance) in order to keep up with transmitter replacement. When driving the route, the meter readers have to set up both receiver units in the truck, then, when downloaded at the office, return to manually read those meters not read on the system. Gradually, reading meters and billing began to fall behind and cut-offs for non-payment took second priority. Reading and billing fell behind to a point that readings were several weeks behind and personnel began estimating what the reading should have been if read when scheduled.

Last year, our Public Works Director budgeted and spent over $108,000 for 1,200 new replacement transmitters for installation by city personnel. Unfortunately, another 1,000 transmitters failed during the year.

Computer Hardware Failures
To further complicate matters, as we were installing new transmitters, the original computer hardware reading system (which served the majority of transmitters) crashed in September, 2006. As a result, new personnel, who were unfamiliar with service locations and placement of meter boxes were required to manually read a system designed for automatic drive-by.

Additionally, it was noted that immediate action was necessary on past due accounts which had been left unattended with continuous service. In order to minimize the losses to the city, and ultimately the taxpayers, it was necessary to divert personnel from manual meter readings in order to cut-off service to individuals who had been receiving services for months without payment.

All of this occurring while the same number of personnel (2 meter readers) handled new growth which requires new meters to be set and the corresponding transmitter attached to each unit, ultimately increasing the customer base by approximately 3% during this past year alone.

We find it necessary to point out that every field operation has a direct impact on the billing process. In-house billing cannot be completed until the field work has been completed. Manual reading must occur under all conditions including, but not limited to, the baling of water, digging out mud, fending off angry dogs, etc. in order to obtain the consumption readings from each individual customer.