By John Schaffner

The city of Atlanta has computer software that, if it had been used, could have flagged many of the high water bills mailed to residents and could have spotted breeches of the city’s procurement policies and procedures.

But that part of the software was not activated at the time those bills were calculated and those breeches were made, city officials said.

It is turned on now, they said.

The software is programmed to alert Watershed Management officials of any water bills that are four times the usual amount, said the department’s new interim commissioner, Dexter White.

If that portion of the Oracle software had been turned on last year, the Watershed Management Department could have been forced to follow proper procedures when it bought $2.1 million worth of security equipment – a purchase city Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman called “the worst abuse” of procedure he’s seen.

Department officials purchased the equipment through the use of “small purchase orders” in amounts totaling less than $20,000.  Using small purchase orders of less than $20,000 meant the purchases did not require approval from anyone above the department level and does not require going through the city’s Procurement Department, city officials said.

Aman said that at one point, someone in the department was keying in five separate purchase orders of less than $20,000 every minute until the total amount reached $2.1 million.

Aman and members of the new hierarchy of the Watershed Management Department recently told two Atlanta City Council committees about changes being made to improve customer service performance and correct operational problems within the department.

Included in the report to the Sept. 30 joint meeting of the Utilities and Finance/Administration committees was a review of the city’s procurement procedures and changes being made in the application of the city’s computer software to help solve problems in both procurement and city billings.

“In the case of both watershed and procurement (departments),” Aman said, “the administration recognizes that significant changes that are required and improvements that need to be made and we obviously are in the process of making those changes in the structure of the departments, changes in personnel, changes in policies and processes.”

Aman said he has become more directly involved in city billing problems.

“Starting with the watershed issues, I have become more involved with the water billing issues in the past two months, when we started to see what was really a repeat of questions about water bills,” Aman explained. “We did not have the same number of complaints in the first several months as we have had starting in July and August.”

There was a wave of complaints in 2009, he said, and many of those were resolved.

“Then there was another spike. Since that spike in July and August, I became personally involved leading an effort to diagnose the problem,” Aman said. “Yes, I am personally involved in trying to find out what is going on and to fix it.”

He said the procurement issue was brought to his attention and he got involved with the city’s Law Department and procurement operations “and there were some personnel changes involved with that to hold people accountable, and we have done that.”

Most of the two-hour meeting centered on water billing and customer service issues.

Watershed Management’s new Chief Financial Officer James Beard said the department has begun a “meter and billing accuracy assessment” and was doing a statistical sampling of in-service meters.

But the main components of the department’s customer service initiatives dealt with the reorganization of the call center that handles customer service complaints and billing issues and the enhanced field service operations.

Beard said customer service representatives in the call center are to identify themselves by name and all calls are recorded. He said those representatives can resolve small, one-time issues involving less than $100. They can also schedule and dispatch field service techs to investigate a problem with meters or leaks or other minor problems.

Field service techs are to arrive at the customer’s location within 72 hours of the call, Deputy Commissioner of Operations David St. Pierre said. They are to conduct an audit of the customer account data and correct any information necessary. A field tech can perform meter testing and correct problems immediately. They carry a supply of meters, meter interface units and related equipment. He then reviews the results with the customer at the location.

The data are sent to the Issues Resolution Team, which makes follow-up calls to customers within 24 hours of the report from the field service tech. A member of that team can make appropriate adjustments to the customers’ bills and can close a ticket if the issues are resolved. Unresolved issues move on to a dispute process.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.