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Olson defends integrity of utility usage data

052017TownHall

Faith Long addresses Mayor Joe Peel and the eight members of City Council during a special town hall on the city's utility billing problems at Knobbs Creek Recreation Center, Wednesday.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, May 19, 2017

City Manager Rich Olson again defended the integrity of the city's utility billing on Wednesday night, telling distrustful residents at a town hall that the city has safeguards in place against employees secretly changing customers' usage data.

Olson's comments came in response to an eyebrow-raising letter last month from Edmunds and Associates, the New Jersey-based vendor that tried to provide the city with new utility billing software. After months of glitches and backlogged bills, the city abandoned Edmunds' system and is getting customers’ utility accounts set back up on its former Logics software system.

In his letter to city officials, Edmunds CEO Bob Edmunds blamed the failed conversion entirely on the city. In particular, he said Elizabeth City “continually stopped progress because Edmunds does not permit unaudited data manipulation like their legacy system” — a reference to the current Logics system.

Referring to the city’s customer service staff, Edmunds said the “primary reason they wanted to continue taking the meter reads into (the) legacy system, is so they could modify a customer's meter read without a transaction showing who changed it and what the original read was.”

While Edmunds did not explicitly accuse city staff of changing customer usage data, his claim has caused residents to be concerned.

Among those concerned about Edmunds’ charge was Jesse Harmon, who spoke at Wednesday’s town hall at Knobbs Creek Recreation Center.

“Why does the power company need to manipulate the meter reading numbers?” Harmon asked, referring to the city utility.

He also said his utility bills have greatly increased despite a mild winter, which he said meant he did not use electricity to heat his home.

“Is it the Logics system that has been manipulated to raise those numbers? … Are the citizens being ripped off by the power company?” he asked.

Olson reiterated Wednesday that the city only changes meter readings to correct errors. When initial meter readings are entered into Logics, he said the system generates a list of possibly incorrect readings, such as for excessive usage. When the meter reader rereads the meters, and needs to enter correct data, it has to be changed in Logics.

Olson said there is a paper trail for those changes – they aren't done without others' knowledge or without a record.

“There is a paper form right here,“ he said, holding up the form, “that is filled out by the meter reader, and then goes to the customer service tech, then the supervisor, then it goes to data processing. Those are the internal controls we have. Whenever we change a meter reading, there is a paper trail associated with it.”

Olson has also previously said that only the data processor has the administrative privileges to change meter data — and that the “Itron” computers that provide the original meter readings are separate from both the Edmunds and Logics systems.

Bob Edmunds has also clarified the comments he made in his April 21 letter. In a May 12 email that Olson provided The Daily Advance, Edmunds wrote the following of his statements about data manipulation:

“This statement was not to assert deceitful actions, but more the unacceptance of new, better, and generally accepted principles,” he said. “As explained to me, the actual process that was taking place had meter reads from Itron going directly into the legacy system, corrections/changes completed in the legacy system, then converting reads from the legacy system to MCSJ prior to billing.”

While Edmunds criticized that process as “extremely inefficient,” he did not say it was employed to falsify usage data. MCSJ is the name of the Edmunds software.

In a followup interview, Olson said customers are free to contact the city to review their account information, including their account histories.

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