Petersburg, Va., Looks to Upgrade Utility Software Following Repeated Billing Issues

The city is hoping that new computer systems it is slowly converting will provide the answer to water meter and billing problems.

by John Adam, The Progress-Index, Petersburg, Va. / May 22, 2017

(TNS) — One of the biggest problems Petersburg, Va., has faced over the past several years has involved utility billing. Due to malfunctioning water meters and uneven billing practices, citizens have experienced repeated problems with their water bills.

These problems cropped up again last week, when multiple residents reported more problems with their bills. Many of them were disputing bills that that had fluctuated abnormally. The city sent out a letter last week saying residents with one inch meters had been undercharged for the past year. Though Jack Berry, an assistant city manager, made a presentation to City Council last week showing how many of the meters were malfunctioning. On top of all of this, the city collection rate for water bills has been as low as 70 percent in recent years.

The city is hoping that new computer systems they are slowly converting will provide the answer to these water meter and billing problems. In a meeting at city hall, Dileep Rajan, a data analytics specialist currently working for the city, talked at length about how the city is currently working on improving utility billing using technology.

"Nobody trusts their water bill today," said Rajan. "If we want to go from 70 percent [water billing collection rate] to 90 percent, we can't do it using spreadsheet after spreadsheet."

The city is evaluating potential software that will better connect the meters to the billing system, providing accurate data on the exact bills. Currently most of the city data is housed in an outdated BAI Municipal software system. It houses city payroll, general ledger, treasury, and utilities. A larger project that the city is working on is converting all that data over to OpenGov, which is the new financial data reporting site the city launched last year. Though in the immediate future, the city is looking at two options in regard to the utility software: either taking utilities out of the BAI system entirely, or better connecting utilities to the BAI system using more efficient software.

"We're evaluating software that could connect the meters and the billing software in the BAI system, with real time accuracy," said Rajan. "We will have a decision on it in the upcoming months."

When the city entered into a contract with Johnson Controls in 2015 to provide the new water meters, the Johnson Controls software did not match up with the city's current BAI system. The Robert Bobb Group has auditors looking at that contract, as Rajan notes that Johnson Controls was "never called on" the fact that the software didn't match up.

With better software, city water customers will be able to trust their bill. Rajan and other officials envision a software that allows customers to see their water usage on their phone or computer.

"Right now, there is too much noise about whether the data is being captured effectively," said Rajan.

The current billing software does not allow this data to be easily read or transmitted. The new billing software will communicate between utilities department and the BAI system much more effectively.

New utility billing is just one of many ways the city is hoping to use technology to strengthen its internal financial systems. In addition to OpenGov, which launched last year, the city is working on implementing another arm of that program in CityWorks, which would allow citizens to see how capital projects are being funded. CityWorks will also provide valuable crime and fire data to law enforcement and emergency services.

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