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City moves toward audit of utility bills

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Elizabeth City City Council took a first step Monday night towards an outside audit of customers' utility accounts.

Councilors voted unanimously to direct City Attorney Bill Morgan to find firms that could audit all accounts for the city's roughly 12,500 customers. Though the study could be costly, councilors agreed an audit was necessary to restore the public's faith in their bills after nearly a year of billing problems.

That lost faith was on display Monday night. Several citizens – most affiliated with the citizens' group “Enough is Enough EC” – told council there were still problems with their bills and demanded transparency and accountability from the city.

One leader of Enough is Enough, Sarah Ownley, also said the group had collected some 1,000 signatures on a petition demanding an outside audit. She also called for the city to continue waiving late penalties and excoriated the city for cutting off her power earlier this month. (See separate story.)

People are calling for an outside audit because of the city's failed conversion to billing software by Edmunds and Associates. The conversion caused a host of technical problems that has frustrated customers with delayed and sometimes questionable bills.

Though City Manager Rich Olson reported Monday that the city's utility bills are getting back to normal, and that he's seen no incorrect bills thus far, he acknowledged some recent bills aren't showing all payments customers have made.

However, Councilors Darius Horton and Tony Stimatz argued for the audit Monday. Citing a need for transparency, Horton moved for Morgan to present council with a list of firms that could audit all accounts and present that list to council for further action.

Stimatz seconded the motion. Stimatz said he's still trying to sort through his account history, and get a clear, complete record of his payments. He commented his account “got kind of squirrelly” around October and it's been “really odd” for the last three months.

Stimatz also suggested that, one way or another, the city is going to have to thoroughly review customers' bills in the coming months.

“It makes me wonder that, are we in essence going to do [an audit] anyway?” Stimatz asked.

Councilor Johnnie Walton also asked Olson what the audit would cost.

Olson responded that a review of all accounts over almost a year could cost as much as $100,000, depending on how detailed the audit is. He said he knew of some auditing firms through the N.C. League of Municipalities and could provide share their names with Morgan.

Mayor Joe Peel commented the study could even cost more than $100,000.

Regarding the audit's potential costs, Walton responded, “I believe that, but don't talk us out of it.”

Peel said in an interview on Tuesday that he supported an audit, but preferred an audit of a large sample of accounts. If the city found problems in those accounts, it could have the rest audited too, he said.

Horton asked for Morgan to present the council with a list of firms by its next meeting on June 26, but Morgan asked for more time, citing a busy schedule and some time off he's taking. He asked to report back to council in July.

Horton preferred the report sooner, however. Horton asked if Morgan could get back to council by June 26 if Olson provided a list of firms he knew of.

“I'll do the best I can,” Morgan responded.

Horton also added in a followup interview Tuesday that, while supporting Olson providing a list of firms “to get the ball rolling,” he also expects the audit to be done independently of Olson. He said he wanted the auditor to report directly to the council and Morgan.

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