Utility Officials Say Training, Not Software, to Blame for Widespread Billing Errors

Nearly one in five of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board 's customers have challenged their bills since the introduction of the new billing system.

by Jeff Adelson, The Advocate / July 9, 2018

(TNS) — The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board is putting the blame for its massive billing problems on its employees and a lack of adequate training, saying the workers never took to the new software system rolled out more than a year and a half ago.

Nearly one in five of the board's customers have challenged their bills since the introduction of the new billing system that dramatically overcharged some customers and sent others duplicate invoices.

In a letter sent late Friday to City Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who chairs the council committee that oversees the S&WB and has been pushing for more information about the billing problems, the agency said complaints about the software itself are misplaced.

S&WB President Pro Tem Tamika Duplessis also put the blame on the utility's previous managers, many of whom were forced out following last summer’s floods.

“A lack of investment in training and support for our staff under previous leadership doomed the Cogsdale system’s accuracy rate,” wrote Duplessis, who has served on the S&WB's governing board since 2014. “We must rectify this immediately.”

The defense of Cogsdale, the company that sold the S&WB the new billing software, comes as the City Council has been demanding answers about the widespread and often outrageous billing problems the public utility has encountered since the new system was rolled out in October 2016.

The agency has a backlog of more than 7,000 disputed billing statements, and officials have acknowledged they are investigating potentially erroneous charges in 21 of the 25 largest unpaid bills.

“Much energy has been spent questioning and criticizing the software provided by ... Cogsdale to replace the board’s antiquated, homemade mainframe billing system. It was a logical target,” Duplessis wrote.

“Further investigation by senior leadership at the board, however, unearthed a simpler, but more troubling, trend: The software works, but only if our employees know how to use it,” she wrote.

The letter also comes in response to council criticism about the cost of Cogsdale’s system and plans to bring the company back, for an additional charge, to do intensive training with the utility's employees in hopes of getting bills back on track.

S&WB employees received “rounds of training” on the new system as part of Cogsdale’s original contract, but the billing problems did not surface until after those trainers left, Duplessis wrote.

“As the Sewerage & Water Board hired new staff, much of the original training was not passed along,” she added.

Duplessis also blamed longtime employees’ “loyalty” to the old billing software and their skepticism about the new system.

“We must ease that discomfort,” Duplessis said. “That is why current leadership is so adamant that we must invest in our people through training, not in chasing any perceived software shortcomings.”

Duplessis also sought to downplay the costs of Cogsdale’s software. In a meeting last month, S&WB officials told City Council members the city had spent $10.2 million on the system, but in her letter, Duplessis said that figure includes the cost of hardware that could run the system.

The direct cost of the software and services purchased from Cogsdale was $6.5 million, including about $1.7 million to upgrade the S&WB’s payroll system.

Fixing the billing issues will mean making sure that S&WB workers are trained to recognize billing problems but also involves improving the meter reading process at tens of thousands of homes and businesses. Officials have said they want to hire more meter readers to reduce problems, but Duplessis said there are other challenges for meter readers.

“Set aside the heat of the day, they encounter mud, debris, snakes, bees and other surprises when they lift the meter covers — obstacles that can encourage mistakes,” Duplessis wrote.

©2018 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.