New consultant report on water bill woes in Savannah

SAVANNAH, GA (WSAV) – An operational audit of The City of Savannah water department confirmed what many customers already knew, i.e. that there were billing problems last year, a lot of them.

In early 2016, the Utilities Services Division launched a new billing system which was to include online payments. However, problems implementing the system quickly became apparent.Then the department indicated that customers would receive fewer than the regular six bills per year, bills but that those bills would be slightly higher. In other words, customers would pay the same for their year of water use.

But many complained about the billing, some indicating that their bills seemed significantly higher. The firm cited overall issues with billing delays, inaccurate customer bills and meter readings and “declining customer service levels.”

Today, Megan Duffy, the city of Savannah’s director of Internal Auditing say an examination of operations turned up customer service and customer trust issues. But she also said the operational audit performed by KPMG Consultants showed for the most part that customers were not overbilled.

“They (KPMG) did a sample of bills and they tested the billing to see if the billing was correct and in the large majority of cases the billing was accurate and correct when it was sent out to the citizens,” said Duffy.

She also said the city continues to address many issues brought up in the report to make sure there is transparency.

The report presented to the city council Thursday offers 21 recommendations in five areas including additional staffing. It also addresses whether the city should go to monthly billing versus bi-monthly.

Alderman Van Johnson says the recommendations are a good idea but also says many customers are still concerned about what transpired last year.  “It was a difficult year for our staff but it was a really difficult year for our citizens,” said Johnson.  “People have to trust what we’re saying. They have to trust our readings when we issue them a bill,’he said.

“The report absolutely confirms that really we messed up, we were not prepared and so, as a result, this was predictable and now that we know we have to acknowledge responsibility for what has occurred and take immediate plans to ensure it does not happen again,” said Johnson.

A representative from the consulting firm KPMG told council members that the new billing system seemed to be implemented in early 2016 without enough planning or staff training.  He offered the council a list of fixes for the system, including recommending that investments be made in the latest technology for remote reading of water meetings.  And the firm recommended the city go to monthly billing if possible.

Heath Lloyd who is the Interim Revenue Director, told the council “This is going to be a process.
I think the 21 recommendations that KPMG laid out establish a framework for us to get to definitely a better place and also the monthly billing that we talked about. But again this is a process, we had a very difficult year there’s no doubt about it because I still hear about it from the public a lot.

Lloyd said the billing issues have stabilized and while his goal is to get back to six bills this year, he can yet promise that.

Duffy says many of the recommendations made are customer oriented and they hope to implement those as soon as possible, including a better online experience for customers which includes bill pay.

“Nearly every recommendation in nearly every category focuses on customer satisfaction and making sure that we communicate well with our customers –  that they understand what’s going on, that we share information with them that they have an opportunity to report information or concerns to us and that we are responsive and that we are moving forward with improving their customer experience and restoring the public trust,” said Duffy.

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