February 25, 2014 9:25:49 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
Earlier this month, some Columbus Light and Water customers, primarily in East Columbus, didn't receive their February bill in time to pay it in time. Some customers received two bills.
Catching the two unrelated errors, the local utility provider purchased advertising in Sunday's and Monday's edition of The Dispatch to inform affected customers. CL&W General Manager Todd Gale said there will be no financial setbacks for the provider or its customers, just inconvenience and confusion. Any late fees for those who received their statements late have been waived and any customer who received a duplicate bill has been asked to disregard it.
The first set of errors mainly affected customers in East Columbus, he said. They occurred after Tupelo-based Central Service Association, CL&W's billing agency, sent some utility data to a different bill mailer than the typical third-party vendor it uses for CL&W bill printing, which is Pinnacle Data Systems out of Birmingham, Ala. After the mistake was found, Gale said, Pinnacle was notified. Then the bills that weren't created were printed and mailed, but by then it was too late for customers to receive them when they normally would.
The second set happened after Pinnacle mailed duplicate bills on one route, Gale said, and those customers should soon be receiving letters of apology for the confusion.
Gale said CL&W staff is communicating with both third-party vendors to prevent future mistakes.
CSA Chief Business Development Officer Roger Smith said the company accepted responsibility for the late bills and that inclement winter weather was a contributing factor.
"CSA and its bill print vendors have a series of checks and balances in place to assure that bills are printed and processed in a timely manner but office shutdowns due to inclement weather in Birmingham, where one of our four bill print vendors is located, caused a breakdown is this system," Smith said. "Since that time we have implemented additional checks but we understand that these new measures do not lessen the impact this oversight has had on Columbus Light and Water or its customer base. The encrypted file was accidentally sent to the wrong bill provider. Under normal circumstances this would have been caught by the incorrect print and mail company but this time, because the people who would catch this error were sent home from work early due to icing conditions, our measures simply failed."
Smith added that Columbus Light and Water has contracted with CSA since 1979.
CL&W has five employees who read water and electric meters. Gale says between them, they have 20 controls, or days in each month when they're en route collecting meter data. On each meter, they read the number and compare it to the number showing the previous time they read it and multiply it by the rate per kilowatt hour to compute how much electricity was used before sending those records to CSA. CSA keeps those records, manages the data flow by preparing bill information and sends the information to Pinnacle, which prints and sends the bills.
Water meter installation on hold
Contract negations with Utility Management Solutions to install a new mobile water meter system will be delayed at least one more month after CL&W's board recently tabled finalizing a deal with the Hammond, La.-based company until its March meeting. Board member Andrew Colom was absent during last Thursday's meeting and colleague Jimmy Graham said he felt it would be best for all members to be present to make a decision.
Graham also questioned choosing UMS, which was one of three companies who submitted requests for proposal (RFPs) to supply and install meters. UMS scored the highest overall by CL&W consultant and Neel-Schaffer engineer John Cunningham. Unlike the other two companies, UMS had two different meter systems the board could choose from for installation, but each system scored the two lowest of four, leading Graham to question the quality of the meters themselves. Part of the negotiation between CL&W and UMS involves a 10-year warranty for each meter, Gale said.
Graham suggested that re-starting the RFP process would be wiser than selecting a company now if there are questions about the meters, even if it meant a delay in installation.
"We're hemmed up in an RFP that's got us compromised. For me to vote for this, somebody's going to have to explain to me that this is good business. Rebidding is better than not getting the best that we can buy," Graham said. "If we get a poor job, we've got 10 years of inefficiency, headaches, problems, all that ... The lowest price is not always the best buy."
Gale said there would be risk involved if CL&W just purchased the meters and installed them in-house.
Though the board opted to hold off a month before deciding whether to contract with UMS or re-bid, Board President David Shelton leaned toward re-bidding.
"(Cunningham) didn't recommend this meter we're talking about, but he recommended them because they had on the best clothes, the best picture show and did the good talking," Shelton said. "Let's get the best we can for our people."
Gale said installation of a drive-by water meter system would run approximately $3.5 million, which is less than the $4 million financial plan approved for a fixed-base system.
Columbus resident Michael Farrow wrote a letter to the editor that ran in The Dispatch Feb. 23 stating CL&W charged $3.95 a month for electronic automatic payment online or over the phone with a credit card.
Gale said neither the municipality nor the utility is legally able to absorb charges that Electric Deposit System, the company that collects payments digitally, charges for the service.
Gale added that by this summer two payment kiosks -- one at the Dutch Village gas station on Lehmberg Road and another near the Bluecutt Road and Highway 45 North intersection -- should be installed. A contract is finalized with US Payments for the kiosks, which take cash, credit cards and checks.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.