Los Alamos County Council Chair Sara Scott and Councilor David Izraelevitz chat prior to Tuesday’s Council meeting at the Municipal Building. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Council Chair Sara Scott has asked the Department of Public Utilities to provide a summary of the issues with the Department’s billing program and its strategy and timeline for dealing with them.
Scott’s request was made at Tuesday’s Council meeting to DPU Manager for Finance/Administration Bob Westervelt after several Councilors expressed their concerns about ongoing problems with utilities billing. Westervelt had just made a presentation to the Council on the proposed increase in water rates.
Councilor Antonio Maggiore was the first to raise the billing issue. He said he had been fully planning to support the rate increase because he understood all of the underlying infrastructure needs.
“I was really struck by one of the public comments tonight which is that the basic things that used to make the utility service affordable for people in this community – budget billing, that that is still not available and we are talking about raising rates. If I’m doing my math right, if you’re someone who makes $25,000 or $30,000, you’re suddenly giving away 10 percent of your income,” said Maggiore.
He was referring to comments made to the Council by Sandy Walters who asked Council under public comment not to approve the water rate hike. Walters said Councilors may be aware that many citizens of the County may be feeling the ripple effects of upgrades and glitches for at least six months. Walters said utility bills have been very inconsistent and at times unexplainable. She complained that Budget Billing, a DPU program that she had enrolled in for 25 years is no longer available to the public and that she had been told last month that it may be available by July.
Walters also explained a meter reading issue saying she claimed to have been overbilled for 5,300 gallons of water and that her electric bill had been estimated. She said she had been given lots of reasons for the overbilling but most of them were about computer glitches and errors.
“Until these computer problems and billing errors have been fixed, and the budget billing program is working, there should not be another change in utility charges pushed onto the citizenry of our County. Vote no on any changes until we have received correct bills for at least three months,” she said.
Maggiore said he thinks the public is right and that their basic issues are around billing.
“I know I got a $2,000 utility bill this winter and then the next month it was not that, but I look at my utility bill – I have no idea sometimes what I am looking at charge-wise or usage-wise. It does not track with my changing to LED light bulbs in my house and fixing the leak in my faucet. I feel like there are some issues in-house that need to get sorted out. I know this rate increase needs to happen. I’m not supporting it tonight,” he said.
Council Vice Chair Pete Sheehey said he is “most displeased”.
“Not with utilities, not with efforts they have made to account for our costs and fairly represent them in rates. But we paid a large amount of money to a contractor to implement a new Enterprise system to include utility billing and clearly it’s not nearly up to what our previous patched-together, old ‘said to be obsolete’ utility billing system was doing for many years,” Sheehey said. “So, I feel we haven’t got our money’s worth from them.”
Sheehey said perhaps the County bears some responsibility in that maybe the County didn’t tell the contractor specifically enough what it expected for utility billing.
“But there are a lot of problems – continuing problems – with the billing and of course that makes our citizens angry. They feel like, ‘Gee, you’re raising my rates and I can’t even get my water meter read accurately’. That’s a fair gripe,” he said. “Nevertheless, I will support the motion. We need to get this billing system straightened out. Like I say we paid a great deal of money to this new contractor and we expect better. The performance is inadequate right now and if they can’t supply it, we need to find somebody who will. It is important for Council to speak up for citizens and when elements of what we’re doing for them as a county are not satisfactory we need to fix them,” he concluded.
Councilor David Izraelevitz said he did not want to lose sight of the issues Walters raised.
“I don’t see that suspension of our financial policies and planning is really the mechanism to use. Like many other, I had issues. I called the customer service people. They’re wonderful, they walk through everything,” Izraelevitz said. “And maybe that is something that we can work on to address your specific issue.”
He said it is disappointing that all the changeovers to Munis worked out so well but that DPU is still having glitches.
“In defense of that, I’ve been involved in big software projects and this one worked out much better than any of the ones that I was involved in. So, I’m going to cut the system some slack. That utility (billing) utility system is one that you see every month and you can’t take a break and say we’re not going to bill anybody for six months until we work things out,” Izraelevitz said. “So, again I don’t want to lose sight of some of the issues, they will try to address them but I don’t think that’s the way – suspending our actual planning which I’m actually very pleased with that we have a long-term both capital and operational plan. The one thing about metering is you may get one month wrong or two months wrong but eventually it all catches up because there is figurative amount of water that you’ve used so eventually everyone becomes whole.
Izraelevitz said he would, though, if appreciate if DPU would highlight for the public some of the support mechanisms they have for people struggling to pay their bills.
Councilor James Robinson said he also agreed with Maggiore that it’s troubling for Councilors to propose a water rate increase when “people aren’t getting appropriate bills”.
“I for one, can say I’ve been blessed. My utility bill has been the same the whole time so I have not been hit with the glitch but I know several individuals who have. I would like to see those problems get fixed as soon as possibility if it also means holding the contractor who built the system accountable to fix it faster, I would like to see that happen if that’s possible,” Robinson said.
Councilor Katrina Schmidt said she agrees with Councilor Maggiore that it is incredibly frustrating to the people of Los Alamos County to be receiving these bills.
“I’ve also heard from personal friends their frustrations with bills they’ve received. That being said, I do understand that we do need to be looking forward at repairing and fixing a lot of the infrastructure that is aging and damaged,” she said.
Councilor Scott said she would support the increase as prudent balance between increasing costs associated with a well-thought out 20 year plan.
“Having said that, I have a couple of comments from a policy perspective. First of all I understand and have heard these concerns regarding billing inaccuracies also the availability of things like budget billing and potentially the ability of folks to know about some of these assistance programs. So what I’d like to ask for on that front, if it’s possible, is if we could get a summary put together of what are the issues, what is the strategy and timeline for addressing them and what are some of these options for folks and could we make that easily readable and publicly available. I think from a policy perspective that would go a long way to address issues that we’ve all talked about here,” Scott said.
The Council voted to approve the water rate increases with Maggiore casting the only vote against.
Minutes of DPU Board meetings since the system was installed last July indicate that DPU expected to have the application fully-functional by the end of August. In September, former candidate for County Council Helen Milenski presented the Board with a list of people who were having issues with their bills. In October, the Board was told that DPU staff was preparing a bill stuffer for November bills detailing how to tell if the customer’s bill is incorrect or may have problems. The billing system does not appear to have been discussed by the Board since then according to the minutes.
The DPU section on the Los Alamos County website still indicated Friday morning that the DPU App is inactive, including the bill pay option and account registration, because of the launch of the billing software.