Tuesday, October 12, 2010

No Quick Answers To Water Bill Overcharges, Audit, System Overhaul

Note: Story originally posted Tuesday Aug. 17, 2010
By Lisa E. Crowley
Brockton Post
BROCKTON—A similar move by two city councilors has postponed Mayor Linda Balzotti’s plan to hire an independent auditor to review on-going water department billing and metering system problems that have plagued the department and has prompted more than 100 calls a day about overcharges and other problems.
Instead, City Councilors Thomas Brophy and Thomas Monahan have requested the City Council issue a Request for Proposals advertisement, or RFP, for an independent auditor to review the water department’s systems—a request that prompted Balzotti to stop her plans to hire an auditor under her authority as mayor which she announced late last week.
“We think it best serves the public’s need to know,” said Councilor-at-Large Thomas Brophy. “It’s not someone chosen by the mayor or anybody else,” he said.
Balzotti announced in a statement late last Thursday afternoon that she had decided to hire Mark D. Abrahams, head of Framingham-based Abrahams Group, to begin an audit of the water department’s billing and metering systems.
She said Abrahams has more than 30 years in public accounting and financial systems and worked with the city when it integrated a city-school general accounting system several years ago.
“There’s no question about his qualifications,” Balzotti said. “He would have done a great job, and he would have started this week, instead of two or three months from now,” she said.
Balzotti had expected to hold a private meeting with Abrahams and other city officials Tuesday (Aug. 17), but it was cancelled after Brophy and Monahan requested a city council order for an independent auditor to be put out to bid instead of the Mayor acting on her own.
She said John Condon, the city's chief financial officer, began seeking an independent auditor in late July, after a controversy broke out over an abundance of astronomical water bills received by numerous residents.
Since the latest controversy began in June, Department of Public Works Commissioner Michael Thoreson said the water department has received more than 100 calls a day with questions about bills and other metering problems.
"I guess all the negative publicity has been a good thing, because we want people to call us," Thoreson said.
He said the department received about 160 calls on Monday.
Balzotti said although she will not fight the city council on the matter, she believes the faster the audit is done the better, but in the name of cooperation has agreed to wait for the RFP process to work its way through—which could be three months or more as opposed to the 4 to 6 weeks she expected Abrahams to bring some recommendations.
“I let the city council order go through so when there are recommendations and solutions it will be something everyone can agree with,” Balzotti said. “When the work is done we’ll have some answers, until then, there will be an audit, but not many answers for a few months—probably at least two billing cycles,” she said.
Brophy said while the RFP process maybe slower, it’s the right way to go.
“It’s the best way to ensure the public trust,” Brophy said.
He said the auditor RFP question is expected on the City Council’s Monday night meeting (Aug. 23) agenda. He said usually an item on its first reading is sent to the finance committee for review and recommendation, slowing the process even more.
However, Brophy said, the board can suspend those rules and ask for action that night, and he expects the question to at least be discussed if not approved Monday.
In the meantime, city officials expect to continue sorting through billing overcharges similar to the ones that have surfaced in the media, including one woman who received a bill for $100,000.
“Anyone who has an estimated bill should contact the water department,” said DPW Commissioner Michael Thoreson.
He said about 1,000 letters were sent to homeowners last Friday. Those 1,000 are residents who have had estimated bills for more than six billings cycles or about 1 ½ years.
Water bills are sent to residents every quarter--every three months--and are marked either estimated bills or actual bills.
Thoreson said estimated bills—and their resulting astronomical overcharges--or in some cases undercharges--are a product of two things: the city’s inability to enter homes to read water meters and the accelerated breakdown of the city’s data reading devices that are attached to those meters.
He said water department employees have manually read more than 8,600 meters during the last billing cycle because of the breakdowns in the electronic metering devices that are outputting information to billing systems about water usage per gallon that are wrong in many cases.
“This is nothing new, and we knew the system was failing and had problems, but recently it began failing exponentially,” Thoreson said.
Thoreson said the current system was installed around 1993-1995 and at the time was state-of-the-art and expected to last about 10 years.
“We got about five more years out of it,” Thoreson said.
The City Council about three months ago approved an $11 million bond bill to pay for an updated, state-of-the-art meter reading system—which in part will be paid through a state grant that received state approval this year after two other failed requests for the low-interest funding.
Thoreson said the billing and meter reading problems have been going on for about three to five years, but because there was no money to replace the systems, the water department did the best it could.
“We have employees working 10-12 hour days, Saturdays and nights to get these meters read and solve these problems,” Thoreson said.
He said he resented comments that the department was “sloppy” or “incompetent."
Thoreson said an RFP for one of four parts of the meter system replacement is expected to be advertised next Tuesday.
Thoreson said the four parts of upcoming bids for the new system are:
1) replacing electronic devices on the outside of the meters that are supposed to feed usage information without being in the home;
2) replacing wires and setting up a data delivery system to replace telephone land lines that once uploaded usage info for billing but because residents use cell phones and not land lines are now obsolete;
3) computer software and radio systems to transmit data and offer greater error detection;
4) and lastly the installation of the new devices, software and radio systems in homes and at the water department.
The first advertisement, Thoreson said, will be for the replacement of the outside electronic devices, and followed shortly after by the next three parts of the project.
He said once all the bids have been reviewed and discussed--a process he hopes will be completed by late fall--Thoreson said he estimated it would take 18 months to install the new equipment in the homes and businesses of the city’s 24,000-plus water users.
“Once we start, we’re not going to stop until we’re done,” Thoreson said.
Another measure to make the replacement process easier, Thoreson said, is a new city ordinance that would allow city officials to enter homes that have not responded to requests to install the new equipment.
He said with the foreclosure crisis and other reasons, the city has come up against a host of problems entering properties with absentee landlords or landlords who advise tenants not to allow meter readers into the home.
The ordinance has not yet received approval, Thoreson said.

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