TOP 10 STORIES OF 2017: No. 1
Top Stories of the Year: Utility conversion rocked EC in 2017
By Jon Hawley
Sunday, December 31, 2017
Editor’s note: Our review of the top stories of 2017 concludes today.
In northeastern North Carolina this year, one issue – and only one issue – caused public outrage and threatened to upend a local government.
Elizabeth City's utility bills were that issue. Those bills caused confusion and, for some, financial hardship in the early months of 2017. Citizens mobilized not only to demand the city fix the problem, but that city leaders be held to account for mismanagement. The problem forced an unsuccessful but divided vote over firing City Manager Rich Olson, dominated the city council election, and still casts a shadow over efforts to upgrade the city's utility system.
The city's utility debacle is The Daily Advance's top story of 2017.
The seed of the city's utility problems was planted years earlier. The city had been upgrading its software systems, adopting new modules for routine, internal functions related to human resources and accounting. In each case, the city installed software from Edmunds and Associates, of New Jersey.
The last, heavy lift was to upgrade utility billing software. The city hoped to convert from a decades-old software, from Logics, in hopes of getting new features and getting the last puzzle piece in place before a new, $3 million “smart grid” system was set up citywide. Ideally, the new software would allow customers to set their billing date and keep a better eye on how much power and water they use.
The city considered multiple companies for new billing software, but opted to go with Edmunds to have all its software through one company.
The conversion was troubled from the outset. Project Manager Sarah Blanchard, then the city's finance director, reported in September 2016 the city had delayed the conversion several times due to glitches. But the city pressed forward regardless, and during that interview she explained nearly 200 customers' bills were sent to the wrong addresses or had wrong due dates.
Emails from Blanchard, the city's now-retired data processor Ellen Cameron and others that The Daily Advance later obtained detailed the battle with bugs. Massively incorrect meter readings, wrongly flagging people for cutoffs, miscalculated penalties, and more hamstrung the conversion and left Cameron and other staffers with little confidence in Edmunds' software. Edmunds officials kept urging they press on, and argued problems would get better once the city abandoned the Logics system and stopped trying to check Edmunds' software against it.
Despite glitches persisting, Blanchard – with Olson's assent – tried to go live with Edmunds' software in December 2016.
It did not go well. Bills continued to go out sporadically, if at all, and even then-Mayor Joe Peel and current city councilors were left wondering when they'd get their own utility bills. Many other customers would go on to complain of getting large, back-to-back bills, being charged incorrect late penalties, city staff not having evidence of payments and more. The problems undermined people’s confidence in bills, and some citizens insinuated in meetings the city wasn’t just making mistakes, but trying to “manipulate” data and swindle them.
Many citizens decided enough was enough – literally. Local photographer Bridget Colbert and other citizens founded “Enough is Enough EC,” a group who brought dozens of citizens to city council meetings and eventually drew thousands more to its Facebook page.
Just days after the group's founding – and as the city got further and further behind on bills – Olson fired Blanchard and decided to abandon the Edmunds software. In firing the city's finance director of 17 years, Olson claimed she lied to him about the conversion and downplayed its problems.
Blanchard's firing didn't satisfy some residents. They faulted Olson for allowing the problems to fester for months, harming the finances of both customers and city government itself.
In a raucous town hall held in May at Knobbs Creek Recreation Center, Enough is Enough members Sarah Ownley and Paul Riggs drew applause as they demanded Olson's firing. Three city councilors tried to do just that a few weeks later. Councilors Darius Horton, Johnnie Walton and Michael Brooks argued Olson had lost citizens' confidence, but Councilors Jean Baker, Ray Donnelly, Anita Hummer, Tony Stimatz and Rickey King voted them down.
Councilors have tried to fire Olson before in 2014. Unlike then, however, even some councilors who opposed Olson's firing suggested their patience was limited. Stimatz suggested he might reconsider the issue as he found out more information, while King said he'd support disciplining Olson.
As Olson and city staff worked long hours to convert customers back to Logics, they also took unusual steps to placate customers. With council's approval, they waived late penalties and disconnections until August and offered no-questions-asked payment plans for customers facing large back balances. Bills were mostly back to normal in July and August, but thousands of customers remain on payment plans representing some $1.8 million in unpaid bills.
The issue also dominated the city council election, as supporters of Enough is Enough ran against incumbents, including Colbert, Riggs and Gabriel Adkins. Though only Adkins won – ousting Stimatz for a Second Ward seat – they helped set the agenda as candidates agreed billing issues were a top priority, and each argued they were best suited to handle them.
The city's billing problems are largely over, but there are fears of repeating them. Olson has said the city still needs new billing software to implement the smart grid and offer customers better service. With a more hands-on approach, and with more city department heads involved than before, Olson is poised to recommend the city try to convert to software through another company, Northstar Utilities Solution. Olson has stopped short of outright endorsing Northstar, but has criticized a competing software as less “robust.”
After the Edmunds conversion, Olson will have to make a strong case for Northstar. Hummer, Adkins and Horton have said they're reluctant or opposed to immediately risking a repeat of 2017's debacle.