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Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson called last night’s town hall a ‘success’ and said the Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB) was able to resolve billing issues for 41 customers who attended .
Between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the meeting hosted by Tyson, the local chapter of the NAACP, the Birmingham Urban League and the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Tyson said billing staff were not only able solve problems for 41 customers, but also start working on resolutions for 15 others.
“I think if we helped one person, it was a success,” Tyson said. “It means a person who doesn’t use their money to pay for their prescription or their grocery money for their water bill. I think it’s a success. »
BWWB members George Munchus, Tereshia Huffman and Lucien Blankenship were in attendance along with General Manager Michael Johnson and members of his billing team.
During the meeting, Johnson asked customers to visit the billing staff set up with computers in the back if they had questions about their bills.
In addition to bringing billing staff, Johnson also brought an abridged version of BWWB’s management response to Underwood Financial LLC’s audit of BWWB billing that was released last month.
As the Lede previously reported, BWWB officials dispute a report by their former chief executive and current paid consultant Macaroy Underwood that customers were overcharged due to meter reading errors.
The BWWB argues that the number of invoices estimated was much lower than Underwood’s report due to an error in counting moving customers, and that the problems were instead due to mass estimates in the system due to shortages of staff induced by COVID.
The response also lists the next steps BWWB is taking to resolve the billing issues.
Completely perform invoice editing staff (completed)
Full staff meter readers (completed)
· Add temporary staff of meter readers (7) (in progress)
· Daily reporting on the status of unbilled customers and route statement (implemented)
· Weekly reporting on the status of open billing positions (implemented)
New invoice design (implemented)
· Reconfigure the SAP invoicing system to perform automated invoicing at scale with limited manual intervention (expected completion end of November)
Create a Customer Resolution Team (requested in the 2023 Operations and Management Budget)
· Recommend supplier to HR committee to assess invoicing processes and procedures (by year end)
Automated Meter Readers (TBD)
At the public meeting, William Barnes, president and chief executive of the Birmingham Urban League, called any form of estimate by the utility “unacceptable” and said Johnson’s claims that the software of Utility billing worked meant little to customers who had no faith. in the data placed there.
Johnson responded that the utility was trying to reduce bills estimated at 2,000 to 3,000 a month and said he was “striving for perfection”.
BWWB also announced this week that it will be rolling out bill credits for overcharged customers by the end of the month. Utility spokesman Rick Jackson previously said about 47,000 affected customers will receive credits and more than 41,000 of those cases are for amounts less than $5.
The few people who requested refunds of more than $50 will receive their money as a refund check instead of a credit, Jackson said, adding that those checks could be expected around the same time as the credits.
During the town hall, Huffman asked, as she has done publicly before, if customers could choose to receive a check, regardless of the amount of their adjustment.
Johnson said it would be difficult, but staff would look into it.
Tyson, who has publicly opposed BWWB for the past year, called the town hall this week following a public hearing held by the utility in early November in which customers were asked to share their concerns regarding a proposed rate increase from BWBW.
Tyson described BWWB’s hearing as “an inconvenience” and told BWWB members that she plans to hold her own town hall.
Many customers have expressed their displeasure at the absence of six BWWB members, even though Tyson invited the entire board in an email last Friday.
Munchus agreed that if more of his fellow board members attended similar meetings in the future, things would improve for ratepayers.
He added that while not all of the BWWBs were in attendance, at least board members were there to hear from customers and asked where members of Alabama Power or the Jefferson County Sewer System had to answer questions about their rate increases. According to Jefferson County’s 2013 bankruptcy settlement, sewer fees are expected to increase 3.49% each year until their debt is paid off. Alabama Power announced earlier this month that starting in December, customers will see an average increase of $10 on their bills.
BWBW client Susan Palmer said that because of the importance of water as a public service, she expects the council to do more.
“I fought rate hikes three or four years ago and I’m back here,” Palmer said. “What are you going to do to help the poor who cannot afford water? You can live without light, you can live without gas, but you can’t live without water.
Jackson released the following statement from BWWB after the hearing:
“As Birmingham Water Works customers voiced their concerns at tonight’s Town Hall meeting, we actively listened. Our involvement included the presence of customer service representatives to resolve customer account issues, meter reading demonstrations, free plumbing fixtures to save water use, and live Q&A with our management team.We hope this was helpful.
“We would like to formally thank Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson for representing her constituency so well and for enabling this additional connection with our customers.
“As we announced in the past few days, all customers impacted by our billing estimate process are automatically credited or refunded. Our billing system is 100% accurate, with 99% of our customers receiving accurate billing and in timely,” Jackson said.
“Our customers are at the heart of our mission, including all of our low- and middle-income customers,” he said. “We ask any customer – regardless of income – who still has a billing or service issue, to contact us by phone at 205-244-4000 or online at www.bwwb.org so that we can address and correct any problems.