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Editor's Note: After the utility bill fiasco, now what?

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THROUGHOUT 2016 and much of this year, the utility bills of the City of Savannah were screwed up so badly, in so many ways, that the Utility Services Department received almost 10,000 calls a month from the public for much of 2016.

That’s in a city of only 146,000 people.

New MS Govern software, purchased to make billing easier, had been incompetently launched and administered, resulting in a huge billing backlog.

This also led to a huge collection backlog, as many renters and others who moved away from the area simply left without paying their late and/or unreceived bills.

The City of Savannah taxpayers lost a lot of money in this fiasco, not only in uncollected bills but in what it will eventually cost to remedy the software situation — which was supposed to save money.

Though everyone already knew what the problem was, this is Savannah.

So we had to hire a consultant to tell us what we already knew.

KPMG Consultants were hired earlier this year. After a lengthy audit over the summer, they just released their full report saying basically, yep, y’all really screwed this one up.

“The report absolutely confirms that really we messed up, we were not prepared and so, as a result, this was predictable and now that we know we have to acknowledge responsibility for what has occurred and take immediate plans to ensure it does not happen again,” said Alderman Van Johnson, succinctly.

But intriguingly, not all the problem was about software. Part of the fiasco involved incorrect water meter readings.

Even the definition of “incorrect” is a bit unclear, as the City admits it made almost 30,000 “estimated” water meter readings last year.

Technically speaking, of course, an estimated water meter reading is also an inaccurate water meter reading.

You don’t have to read between the lines to understand that the main reason for the “estimated,” i.e. incorrect, readings is the staff simply couldn’t physically do the readings in time for even the skeleton schedule of five utility bills for the year.

What we’re seeing is a pretty compelling argument that many of our problems in this area boil down to the ultimate “software” problem, i.e. human error and/or poor management.

One human that won’t be in management anymore is former Revenue Dept. Director Cindy Landolt, who resigned in the wake of the controversy. (To be fair, she cited personal reasons, and no other reason was given.)

In May, City Manager Rob Hernandez appointed Heath Lloyd as acting Revenue Director, as the search continues for a permanent one. The search closes Oct. 27 and the City hopes to have one hired by the end of this year.

One KPMG recommendation involves combining the two entities which now compile utility bills under a single department and a single director.

KPMG says the two City offices currently involved in billing “reside in different locations reporting to differing department leadership. Organizational and operational silos reduce the efficiency and effectiveness of water metering, billing, and customer service.”

No-brainer, right? Not so fast.

While one would think this goal matches up well with what City Manager Hernandez is already doing – attempting to massively restructure the City of Savannah’s ancient bureaucracy– he has decided that “staff does not feel it necessary at this time” to combine the two departments currently involved with these bills.

Hernandez also makes it clear there will not be a single director of the utility billing function, against KPMG’s recommendation.

However, one suggestion he approves is hiring a PR person to restore public trust. Though a PR person would likely be much cheaper in the short term, it seems to me the money’s better spent on streamlining the department in question.

As of now Hernandez is also hedging on another KPMG suggestion, that the current water meter reading staff — currently only ten people including a supervisor — should be augmented so there won’t have to be such a reliance on “estimated,” i.e. inaccurate, water meter readings.

Currently, Hernandez writes that “the number and type of additional staff that may be necessary has not yet been determined.”

Clearly, part of the reluctance there has to do with what role smart meters will play, and how quickly, though Hernandez himself says implementing an all-smart meter system would take five years.

Some of KPMG’s other suggestions moving forward are almost embarrassingly simple. One says the City “should also consider leading industry benchmarks when developing a formal training program for current and new employees.”

They weren’t already doing that?

It also recommends that the City make the utility portion of the website “easily accessible and navigable for customers.”

Now that’s groundbreaking! (And also ironic, in that most of the City of Savannah website is actually quite useful, and greatly improved over the past few years.)

All this said, I generally feel sure that City Manager Hernandez is up to the task. In my opinion we can pretty confidently add the utility bill debacle to the long list of festering, unaddressed problems that stacked up during the tenure of previous city managers.

Indeed, Alderman Brian Foster specifically said that Savannah was a “guinea pig” for the new software, which sounds about right.

Overarching this entire discussion is one of Savannah’s recurring themes: We are overly reliant on outside consultants to find problems and make the recommendations to move forward that we are already paying a City Manager and City staff to determine and execute.

Hopefully an end result of all this will be not only a modernization of software, but of our human leadership as well.

cs

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