Water Billing Solution Goes Down the Drain

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Water Billing Solution Goes Down the Drain

June 7, 2001, 09:00 PM By Randy Neves and Curt Poff, KGW staff

A new computer system that was supposed to the solution is now the problem at the Portland Water Bureau.

The system is still broken and thousands of people are without water bills.

More than 7,000 water customers right now have no idea what they owe the city.

Some have waited more than a year for a water bill. Mysteriously absent water bills are now arriving in mailboxes all over Portland.

Aaron Pottmeyer's balance has grown to $450. Others will pay more than twice that amount.

"May 9th of 2000 was our last bill," said Pottmeyer, an upset water customer. "Never have I received any explanation in the mail. We were never told there were problems."

Erik Sten - Portland's water commissioner - had the intention of buying a new computer water-billing system to reward customers who use less water, something the old system couldn't figure out how to do.

The new software was so bugged and the vendor was so unable to fix the problem that it has taken more than a year for Pottmeyer to get his final bill.

"Not only are we given a balloon payment after a year, we're also going to see a rate increase because of this," Pottmeyer said.

Rates will increase one-percent to offset the amount of money it costs to fix the new system.

Sten blames most of the glitches on Severn-Trent, the Houston-based vendor who sold Portland the software.

"We've got to have this thing working by July 1st," Sten said. "Or else I'm going to start considering drastic measures."

The deadline comes a little late for Pottmeyer.

He thinks the software vendor should pay for its foul-ups.

The city is working with Severn-Trent to correct the billing problems, but its also withholding $750,000 in payments to the company until the glitches are fixed.

About 4,000 more water bills should go out next week.

Those whose bills are more than six months late can expect to seer a 20-percent sewer credit sometime this summer.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 08, 2001


All stories about Portland's water billing
problems from early last year mentioned that
they upgraded for Y2K. This year that is not
a mentionable term ::::-

-- spider (spider0@usa.net), June 09, 2001.

OR - Future computer systems deals go to mayor

Vera Katz praises Erik Sten for taking responsibility but asserts a key role for her and Tim Grewe's offices Vera Katz praises Erik Sten for taking responsibility but asserts a key role for her and Tim Grewe's offices

Thursday, July 12, 2001

By Courtenay Thompson of The Oregonian staff

Portland Mayor Vera Katz praised City Commissioner Erik Sten Wednesday for taking responsibility for the Water Bureau's troubled computer billing system, which could cost the city $15 million in permanent losses.

At the same time, Katz announced that all future purchases of computer systems no longer will be handled by individual city bureaus, but will come through her office and the city's chief administrative officer, Tim Grewe.

Her comments came at a City Council meeting Wednesday as Sten and the Water Bureau, which he oversees, brought to City Council the latest report on what Sten called the "utterly flawed" Open Vision computer software, developed by Severn Trent Systems of Houston.

Seventeen months since the system was turned on in February 2000, it still wasn't billing 11,569 water and sewer customers as of June 30. That has led to a $35.5 million revenue shortfall, most of it unbilled and past-due accounts.

OR - Problem accounts underestimated In recent weeks, a political maelstrom erupted after The Oregonian reported that some Water Bureau officials knew of the potential problems but decided to fire up the system anyhow. In addition, the bureau reported that it had far underestimated the number of problem accounts in its last report to council in February -- nearly 40,000 accounts rather than 8,500.

In the aftermath, the Water Bureau's administrator, Michael Rosenberger, resigned, and Sten asked Katz and Grewe to step in. Water rates have gone up an extra 1.1 percentage points and sewer rates 1.4 percentage points because of the problems.

Sten told the council Wednesday that bad judgment, rather than dishonesty or malfeasance, led to starting the system despite warnings it wouldn't work as planned.

"I think our flow of information was not as good as it could have been," Sten said, "and I personally feel responsible for having a situation in which concerns were raised that were not heard by everybody involved, including (me)."

Katz also sent out a warning to city employees that it's unacceptable to keep information from the mayor or the commissioner in charge of a bureau.

"Lesson to be learned," Katz said. "Never do that again."

Sten said that although mistakes were made in the past, the city must focus on bringing the system under control. The bureau now has about 10,000 problem accounts, down from the 40,000 in February.

"We've cleaned up about 75 percent of the problem, but the problem was twice as big as I thought," Sten said.

He said all the accounts should be working by sometime this fall.

"We're not going to declare victory until that happens," Sten said.

Many bills are unpaid The Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services, which oversees sewers, still face a mountain of unpaid or late bills, in part because Sten and Water Bureau officials decided to suspend debt collection until the problems were resolved. It would have been unfair to go after people who had not even been billed, Sten said.

Now the city is stepping up its debt collection. The city expects to recover only 70 percent to 80 percent of the $32.2 million owed by customers beyond the current billing cycle. The automatic debt recovery function of the software isn't expected to be on line until Oct. 1 or even Dec. 1.

Jim Abrahamson, chairman of the Portland Utilities Review Board, a public watchdog, called for a full accounting of the damage to ratepayers and urged the City Council to put sufficient staff and resources to solving the problem.

Grewe said Wednesday he has tapped Ron Bergman, director of the Bureau of General Services, to lead the team charged with assessing whether to scrap the computer system. Grewe, Bergman and finance director Ken Rust are all working on the issue.

Full system report next week Grewe will come before council next Wednesday with a full report on the team's plan for determining whether to stick with the system. Other weekly reports will follow.

Bergman promised to look at financial issues, including whether the shortfalls might damage the city's bond rating. A technical team will assess the computer system, while another team will examine the city's old billing system to see whether it could serve as a backup or be used in part. Another technical group will look at alternatives to Open Vision, should the city decide to jettison it.

"Our focus is on where we are now and where do we go next," Bergman said, "not a retrospective."

Grewe said they will undertake that task after the system has been stabilized.

"I can assure you we'll get a stable system," Grewe said. "I just don't know what it will look like."

http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/oregonian/index.ssf?/portland/orego nian/p5_water12.frame

-- Doris (nocents@bellsouth.net), July 18, 2001.

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