Cleveland agrees to spend $2.5 million to figure out water billing system disaster

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After suffering through over 18 months of a dysfunctional $31 million water and sewer billing system, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and the city council have decided to spend $2.5 million to hire outside consultants to help get it running properly.

The city is under fire by both residents and neighboring communities that rely on the billing system, for its failure to provide timely and accurate bills.  A story in today’s Plain Dealer said that nearly 2,000 customers haven’t received a bill since the system went live in September 2009. Another 17,000 customers haven’t received their scheduled November bills.

Neighboring communities that rely on Cleveland for sewer billing services are worried about the growing amount of unbilled monies owed them, since statements are not being generated and sent to customers. One such community, the city of Solon, said last month it will implement its own system, after determining that Cleveland was doing such a poor job responding to customers and sending out bills.

A recent survey by the Plain Dealer found that leaders of 24 suburbs that use Cleveland’s water system rated its performance in meter reading, maintenance or billing as “bad” or “terrible.”

Despite its troubles, no one in city hall or the public utilities department is taking the blame, or attempting to assign ownership of the disaster. There have been no indications that any employees have been reprimanded or terminated.

Councilman Kevin Kelly, head of the council’s Utilities Committee, said he is unsure who to blame for the problems. “A lot of the problems have been so persistent and so systemic, I’m not sure who fault would be assigned to until we get in there and take a look at what’s going on with this division,” he said.

As to the consultants, Public Utilities Director Barry Withers said, “We’re not abdicating responsibility, we’re seeking assistance.”

After denying requests for an interview by the Plain Dealer, Withers responded with a statement blaming the problems on the new billing system — and on the city’s customers.

“We are aggressively working to resolve those issues . . . and have made significant improvements to the process as underscored by increased revenue collections in recent months,” Withers added.

“We also believe there must be some acknowledgement in this process of the effects of the severe recession that the nation is emerging from on the ability of people to pay their bills . . . .”

Now that the city’s new billing system is in place, the Division of Water is looking to undertake a new project — the installation of an $87 million automated meter reading system.

Information from: The Plain Dealer

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