As DeKalb releases more water bills, audit shows a water billing system in disarray
Mailing someone a water bill might sound easy enough for any local government but, DeKalb County’s spectacularly dysfunctional billing system continues to embarrass county leaders.
County CEO Michael Thurmond, who inherited this mess, has made fixing what he has called a “crisis” a top priority. He’s begun releasing bills that have been held by water department officials due to questions about their accuracy, recently announcing that another 5,000 overdue bills will go out Aug. 14. That will bring the total number of bills released to 13,000, leaving another 24,000 bills outstanding.
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Thurmond’s inability to quickly resolve the crisis has been a source of frustration for residents. He said fixing the billing system will take two to four years. A new audit ordered by the county shows that the problems were years in the making and finally reached a boiling point when more customers noticed they’d stopped getting their bills.
Customers began complaining about high water bills in 2014. The county conducted a water billing audit then, finding more than 5,000 customers whose water usage had doubled. The county determined that an increase in water usage accounted for 71 percent of these cases, and leaks accounted or another 16 percent. The county claimed responsibility for 13 percent of the errors, saying the problem was due to a variety of factors including meter reading errors, meter malfunctions, billing errors and previous under-billing.
After receiving the 2014 audits, county officials pledged to increase customer service representatives and give them better training. It also pledged to communicate better with customers and educate them about leaks and water conservation.
This did not resolve the problem and complaints continued through 2015. That year the county reorganized the Water Department, moving water meter reading and field services out of the Treasury Department to DeKalb Watershed Management.
“The remaining billing functions within Treasury were reorganized and renamed the Utility Customer Operations, reporting to the CFO,” the audit says. “The reorganization was intended to be rolled out in three phases, however only one phase was completed. Competing project priorities and data quality billing issues led the County to halt the reorganization after the first phase.”
The botched reorganization effort resulted in some existing employees being fired or resigning.
“When numerous employees departed from the County, they unfortunately took the institutional knowledge with them leaving no documented prescribed workflow behind,” the audit says. “The county experienced loss of institutional knowledge from the turnover at the billing, metering and field services positions. The county then began filling vacant positions with less experienced and temporary employees.”
The county quickly realized its mistake, the audit says. Those employees were using a “high level of effort” to get bills to customers.
“In many instances, billing staff members were estimating bills and applying other short-term, quick fixes to resolve billing exceptions in an effort to help ensure the county was able to keep pace with the deadlines associated with the county’s billing cycle,” the audit says.
Something else happened in 2015 as well. The county decided to lower the amount of usage it would take to flag a bill for further review.
“The county made a policy decision in 2015 to lower the consumption variance that would trigger a billing exception in the [billing] system,'”the audit says. “Previously, the consumption level would have to be 500 percent greater or less than the previous billing cycle’s meter reading to trigger an exception to be resolved by billing specialists. This type of exception is known as a High/Low exception. As a result of inaccurate bills coming in under the threshold, the county lowered the High/Low exception threshold to a 300 percent variance to help ensure additional vetting by billing specialists and analysts before bills with an initial 300-500 percent variance are issued to customers.”
That resulted in more bills being flagged for review, overwhelming the county’s staff and creating backlog that continues to this day
On the technology side of the problem, the county planned to replace 40,000 meters in 2016, but only replaced 8,000 of them.
“The low completion rate was due in part because the county did not have a coordinated plan and associated staffing levels (both internal resources and external contractors) to complete 40,000 replacements in the time frame that was provided by county leadership,” the county says. “The county’s water meter change out program was placed on hold in October of 2016 as the county shifted its focus to responding to ongoing water metering and billing issues.”
The county suspended the installation after it learned that the meters could potentially be defective. In 2016, the county issued a moratorium on water disconnects over non-payment of water bills.
There were also overarching issues causing problems, the audit found. Management of the water billing system has been split between two departments: Watershed Management and the Finance Department’s Utility Customer Operations Division.
“The two functions reside in differing departments reporting to differing department directors which does not allow for a single person to be accountable and manage end-to-end water metering and billing processes,” the audit says.
Watershed Management has had several changes in leadership. Since 2003, the director of the department has changed six times. One interim director served twice and was fired both times, the audit says.
“Turnover at the Director level has led to instability throughout the DMW as priorities shift and new initiatives are developed as department leadership changes,” the audit says.
This is really a thumbnail sketch of the audit’s findings. The whole document is posted at the end of this story.
CEO Thurmond said the audit has mostly told the county what it already knew.
“The draft … audit report on water billing issues in DeKalb County confirms the problems we have identified and are working to correct including accurate water bills, better customer service, improved processes, replaced meters, new technology, and restored trust in the system,” Thurmond said. “We are closely reviewing the draft report and will utilize any new information contained in the audit.”