BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities Deputy Manager for Finance and Administration Bob Westervelt told the Los Alamos Reporter Friday afternoon that in hindsight, it would have been very helpful to have more time to test the Tyler’s Munis billing software before going live last July.
“We might have been able to catch some of the issues that have arisen. However, there were hard deadlines with the ‘go-live’ date and we were not afforded all the time that we wish we could have had,” Westervelt said.
He said after DPU went live with the new billing software in July, the Customer Care Center was receiving more than 400 phone calls a day, with multiple walk-ins. At that time customers were calling about late bills, incorrect consumption graphs and incorrect service dates.
“As of today, the number of daily phone calls has returned to normal. The Customer Care Center staff is still busy handling approximately 100 calls a day, and approximately 90 walk-ins,” Westervelt said. “About 60 percent of those interactions are staff explaining to customers how and why the total due on the bill is correct. Very few are incorrect, and when they are, staff is fixing the bills.”
Another 35 percent are customers making payments, scheduling utilities to be turned on or off, and requesting general changes to their account such as new phone numbers or email addresses, he said, and the other 5 percent of customers need meter verifications or meter rereads.
Westervelt said probably few Los Alamos customers remember when DPU went live with the Cayenta utility billing software more than 20 years ago and then implemented an upgrade 10 years later.
“We experienced some issues with those initial utility bills too that we eventually worked out. We are going through similar growing pains with the new Munis software billing,” he said.
He said while the Munis Software that has been implemented is in common use by many municipalities, Los Alamos County’s utility bills are more complicated than most. While most cities or counties provide one or maybe two services – such as water and sewer, the County’s bills include five services – electricity, gas, water, sewer, and refuse.
“Some of the calculations are too complicated to show on the bill, such as the tiered water rate, or the natural gas conversion from 100 cubic feet to therms or the changing pass through rate. While these calculations are working fine in the billing software, they are not always translating well on to the printed bill. We have provided references for our customers to explain how these complicated calculations can be verified, and we are happy to sit with customers to walk them through the calculations,” Westervelt said.
Another issue that time will fix he said is that DPU doesn’t have sufficient consumption history in the new billing software.
“We discovered this when the billing software had to estimate some bills in January and February when meters were covered with snow. The billing database only had consumption quantities going back to July, therefore estimates for natural gas were too low, based on summer consumption,” he Westervelt said. “Likewise, estimates for water were too high, again based on summer consumption. Once actual meter reads were obtained, these quantities corrected themselves on the following bill. We anticipate that after a full year of consumption data is collected, future estimates will be much better.”
Westervelt said DPU is working to regain the confidence of its customers.
“We’re a County-owned utility. We are not profit driven. Our staff works diligently to correct all issues just as soon as they are discovered because we don’t not want to over or undercharge our customers. If there’s a mistake, we will correct it, and then my staff will institute procedures to prevent that same mistake from happening again,” he said.
He mentioned a recent error discovered in the natural gas calculation for a number of customers in White Rock. That error was discovered when a single customer in White Rock was overcharged.
“The staff researched the error to determine how many other customers were also impacted by this same miscalculation. Once this was discovered, each incorrect bill was recalculated and reissued to the customer. We proactively notified all affected customers of the error and most people received the notice and correction before they had even recognized that there had been an error,” he said.
Asked about the public comment made by Sandy Walters at Tuesday’s County Council meeting about budget billing no longer being available, Westervelt said initially DPU thought they would be able to reinstitute budget billing by January or February.
“However, the problem with the utility billing software estimating meter reads with only six months’ worth of consumption data, is the same problem with budget billing. The software will not arrive at a reasonable budget billing amount without 12 months’ worth of data. Additionally, we need to adjust the printed bill to reflect the calculated budget billing amount due. We hope to be ready to roll out budget billing this coming July,” he said.
In conclusion, Westervelt encouraged any customer who has an issue with a bill to bring it to the Customer Care Center and that the staff will work with the customer until the issue is explained and/or resolved.
Westervelt earned both his BA and MBA from UNM. He joined DPU in 2012 after 20 years working in finance and accounting in state government and utilities. He is responsible for financial planning for the electric, gas, water and wastewater services, and oversees the 311 Customer Care Center.