Why Ramseur’s Water Bills Were So Late
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the need to publish anything in this space. Several of you have contacted me over the last few months wondering why I had not posted anything about one issue or another, and as I told those individuals, it’s not the purpose of a government watchdog to write about every issue, rumor, or bit of drama happening around town on any given day. As I see it, a watchdog’s purpose is to keep an eye on the issues our government is dealing with and expose misbehavior if it happens. Disagreements over policy decisions don’t usually rise to a level that warrants intervention from the sidelines.
With that said, it has become apparent over the past few months that a few issues our governing board and administrative staff have been dealing with have been blown out of proportion and widely misrepresented by rumors. I feel that one of these issues has reached a level that it does deserve to be addressed in this space; our water bills.
Before going any further I want to state that I am proud of the way our new mayor and commissioners have handled the situation they find themselves in today. I believe that I have received every relevant email sent or received by our town officials since most of them took office last December, and have had every question I have asked answered without hesitation. I believe our current board of commissioners and mayor are handling their duties with integrity and as much transparency as humanly possible.
Mayor Caudle inherited an office in which both the mayor’s computer and the mayor’s cell phone had been reset to factory settings, wiping out years of contacts, correspondence, and documents which by law should have been preserved. To her credit Mayor Caudle chose to move forward with the tools at hand and carry on. I would not have been as forgiving.
The new board came into office with a new clerk and an interim finance officer who spent weeks attempting to sort out years of often improperly maintained records, and establish a functional office from the chaos left by the previous administration. A few months ago the board had to begin yet another search for a new clerk when Gwen French resigned. And now our local government finds itself navigating the uncharted waters of a global pandemic and a potential economic recession the likes of which few people living today have ever faced. We should all be thankful to have such a dedicated group of people leading our town in these troubling times, even when we do not always see eye to eye on some issues.
Many of you have expressed concerns over the last few months about our water bills. After clerk Hatley resigned last summer it became obvious that something wasn’t as it should have been in the water department. Many reported receiving bills in exactly the same amount for several months in a row, while others noticed that their bills were either much higher or much lower than normal in some months.
Upon being sworn into office, Mayor Caudle and Commissioner McIntosh, charged with overseeing public works and water/sewer, were informed of ongoing issues with the computerized technology used to read water meters all over town. Former Commissioner Grant Cheek, our water billing clerk, made the new mayor and board members aware that he had never been adequately trained in the use of the software used to generate our water bills from the data collected by electronic meter reading devices. Bobbie Hatley had held that position previously and was probably better versed in the use of that application than Mr. Cheek. When she resigned her position as our town clerk last July, Mr. Cheek could no longer as readily look to her for guidance when issues arose in the billing process.
The new board members were made aware of a widespread hardware failure in the meter reading system, which upon investigation revealed a defect in the data reading component of many water meters around town. An oversimplified explanation for this is that in the process of taking monthly readings something gets stuck and causes the batteries to run down prematurely, and now we have battery failures all the system.
The good news is that these failures are covered under a warranty, so most if not all of the replacement and repair costs will not be at our expense. The bad news is that eventually all the electronic meters in the system will fail, and until all have been replaced – well over 1,000 units – most water meters will have to be opened each month and read manually. That is a time consuming process that neither the town nor Suez had the manpower available to address when the problem was discovered, and adds significantly to the time required to generate our water bills.
As noted, these issues did not begin in December. Many of us began receiving water bills in exactly the same amount last summer, if not before, and no household uses exactly the same amount of water every month. The software used to generate our water bills, called Harmony, is a powerful and versatile application, and our water billing clerk, Grant Cheek, had never been adequately trained to fully utilize that resource.
I’m told that he did attempt to address this in his capacity as billing clerk, but to the best of my recollection and that of others I’ve spoken with, the issue was never discussed in any board meeting prior to last year’s election. Training has since been provided to Mr. Cheek and our interim finance officer Pam Wortham, as well as Mayor Caudle and Commissioner McIntosh.
Earlier today I received a copy of an email conversation between Mayor Caudle and Pam Wortham regarding Pam’s efforts to analyze multiple issues that led to the problems we’ve experienced in the water billing department. Those messages, lightly edited for clarity, are reproduced below.
Sent: Thursday, April 2, 2020 11:54 AM
To: Pam Wortham <pam.wortham@REDACTED>
Subject: Harris software – water bills – meter reading
I hope you are feeling much better and appreciate all that you have done in assisting the town to get the water bills out. That being said I am getting questions about why it has taken so long, why the readings have had to be re-read so many times. I understand that the batteries are an issue and that some of the readings provided have been inaccurate. I also understand that the software can be a little tricky.
Please explain exactly the problems and the steps taken to get the water bills out and what do we need to have in place for next month. Let me know if you believe we need to do a complete manual reading only and not mess with the hand-helds, especially if the incorrect readings provided are causing more issues.
Vicki Caudle, Mayor
Town of Ramseur
Pam Wortham <pam.wortham@REDACTED>
Sent: Thursday, April 2, 2020 12:49 PM
Subject: RE: Harris software – water bills – meter reading
I am much better. Unfortunately, me being sick significantly compounded the issue of getting the bills out timely this month.
Some perspective. Over the past few months, we have had a lot of reading errors and incorrect bills. As those have happened, we were just making quick corrections so that the bills could go out relatively on time. After we had our session with Harris, Master Meter/Harmony, and the hardware representative, I spent quite a bit of time reviewing the process and trying to more fully understand what the issues were that Suez was having. When the first set of readings came in, I was able to identify several issues that needed more than just a quick fix. Keep in mind that this was the first month of bills after I learned how the systems worked together.
The initial report out of Harris was 38 pages long, and had probably 300 or more error messages. Some of the messages were due to incorrect dates from the previous reads (this is a situation that you were aware of), and they entailed several steps (and in multiple windows that couldn’t operate at the same time) in the software to get the date corrected. Extremely time consuming. And I still have no idea how the date error occurred, unfortunately, because I would love to avoid that again. There were many items on the list that didn’t have any information from the Harmony system. Those still need more review and corrections, but it appears that they are not valid accounts, and I don’t know yet why they are showing up on our side.
I have the copy of the reports that Suez used to give the hand-written readings to Grant. There were a lot of those that were left blank. I asked that those be read. When we got the final report last week, and Jim had gone with Suez folks, every account had a note. Some meters were broken, some could not be located, and on some there were notes that no one lived there. I do not know if these were some of the ones they went to multiple times. Possibly, I asked them to go back, because they left it blank? I’m not sure about that part of the process.
There were also some readings that were so far off that I felt like they needed to be verified. I can’t remember specific examples, but there were cases where the info from Suez gave me a reading that was the same as a reading from two months ago, or the usage ended up with a couple of hundred thousand gallons of usage.
As I went through all the bills, I did a lot of analysis to see what appeared to be the underlying issue on each account. And each one had different issues. I can’t give you just a single reason, although I wish it was that simple.
I can’t answer the question as to whether it would be better to go to all hand reads. I also don’t have any way to know if the readings that were so far off were due to mis-reads from the electronic system, or if Suez did a manual read and keyed the items in incorrectly. From what I had to work with, I can’t distinguish between the two.
When I finished working on the bills, they were in much better shape than they have been. They are still far from perfect though, because I still had to estimate usages in many cases. I have a lot of notes on those 38 pages, and I want to sit with Grant and Jim, and anyone else that needs to be involved, to go over all of my notes.
Bottom line, if I had not been working to get all the corrections made this month, the bills could have gone out on time, like they have been, with quick fixes put in. But the problems would have been there next month still waiting for correction, and compounded with additional errors. I realize that water billing is not specifically what I was hired to do, but it hits the General Ledger, and impacts everything that I am working so hard to fix. If I hadn’t been so sick, the bills would have gone out just a couple of days late (still late though, based on when all the readings were completed), and I hate that it happened.
Let me know if you have more questions, I am happy to answer whatever I can.
My plan is to come in on Monday next week, and not sure what other days. But hopefully more back to normal, even though nothing is normal right now.
Mayor Caudle has made it a priority from day one to operate her office with as much transparency as the law allows, and has on several occasions expressed to me her desire to see every town employee given the tools and training they need to succeed in their jobs. The problems with our water billing process were known to the billing clerk prior to the election, but the cause had not been determined, nor was it ever addressed in any public meeting.
This issue is only one of many instances where previous administrations failed to take steps to keep our town up to date, from water billing to police and fire equipment to office telephone systems and long term plans for continuity and succession. This issue and others like it reveal a pattern of behavior by certain past officials who, whenever possible, chose to ignore matters that would “make the town look bad” because in truth, those issues would have revealed those individuals to be incompetent as elected officials. Thankfully those individuals were not re-elected.