Audit of city utility bills needed to restore credibilty


Sunday, June 18, 2017

The issue: City officials are looking into an audit of all of its 12,500 utility customer accounts as a way to confirm the actual use and accurate billing of customers after the city’s attempt to install new billing system software in the last year failed resulting in incorrect billing statements.

Our position: Although an expensive step, absent any other options, the city will have to spend the money on the audit to restore confidence in the accuracy of the city’s billing system. 



Creating and maintaining credibility, whether in business or in personal matters, takes a commitment to steady performance over time. On the other hand, trying to rebuild credibility or trust after losing it can be more difficult, requiring actions beyond just fixing obvious problems.

Accordingly, for Elizabeth City officials, overcoming the stigma of errant billing of the city's utility customers over the last year will not be an easy fix. And apparently, nor will it be cheap.

Last week, city council voted unanimously to pursue a full audit of the city's 12,500 utility customer bills, directing City Attorney Bill Morgan to identify a list of firms that could conduct the audit. And to emphasize the priority of their action, Morgan was asked to have the list by council's next meeting, June 26. Though such a project shouldn't be compromised by haste, wanting to get the process moving reveals the impact this matter is having on the city and its residents and a desire that it be resolved as quickly as possible. We couldn't agree more.

That sense of immediacy was on display at the recent council meeting, just as it was several weeks ago at a public meeting held at Knobbs Creek Recreation Center, as dozens of angry residents showed up to complain about billing disagreements tied to the debacle.

The consistent and escalating tenor of public complaints has put city officials on the defensive and in need of a firm resolution to the billing turmoil, which has been building since the city switched from its older billing system to a new computer software program last year.

That process seemed problematic from the beginning. What followed were months of errant billing — and a reciprocal level of rising customer complaints — eventually leading to the firing of the city's long-time chief financial officer Sarah Blanchard, who was in charge of overseeing installation of the new software.

During the last several months, the city has taken steps to correct billing errors and ease customer complaints, by re-installing the older billing accounting system and by suspending mandatory power cutoffs and waiving late fees. These steps have been conciliatory — and necessary— to help customers navigate the process of paying their utility bills, which, because of high rates for decades past, were already a sore spot with many residents. Adding that history into the current wrong billing data thrown into the mix, and the city has observed a near insurrection on its hands.

Obviously, some definitive response from the city is justified, and a full audit appears to be the only remedy that can assure the public of accuracy on their monthly statements and restore what the city most needs -- credibility and confidence in the utility billing department.

Unfortunately for the taxpayers, that will come at a price. Estimates from city officials indicate the cost could be $100,000 or more for a full audit of all utility bills. That's a big bite out of the city's coffers, but options seem limited.

It was suggested that auditing a smaller portion of bills could be conducted to assess the frequency and occurrence of errors to determine if a full audit is needed. That would be one way to save money if the impact had not been felt across all of Elizabeth City's customer base and if this problem had not been the creation of local government, which has an obligation to treat all of its constituent, taxpaying residents fairly and equally. A proportionate audit, we're afraid, is not going to be enough to convince a skeptical public. The billing errors were widespread; it will take a widespread remedy to convince bill-payers that their statements are accurate.

Unless the city or its advisers from the League of Municipalities or other state agencies can provide a better alternative, an audit appears the best path to instill confidence — and credibility — among customers.