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City makes new push for billing conversion

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Elizabeth City’s switch to new utility billing software could carry major benefits for city utility customers, but it will be expensive and there's some risk that last year's billing fiasco could be repeated.

Those were some of the takeaways from a presentation last week to City Council’s Finance Committee by City Manager Rich Olson and members of ElectriCities, the utility management firm serving dozens of communities across North Carolina.

As expected, Olson asked council to support converting from the city's Logics billing software to a new software by NorthStar Utility Solutions. He also asked council to support hiring ElectriCities to help implement the conversion, as well as host the city's data on its servers and provide continued tech support.

Just setting up the software for the conversion would cost the city $455,530, plus more than $90,000 a year in recurring costs for software maintenance and support, according to Olson. Converting to NorthStar without ElectriCities' involvement would cost $490,375, plus about $50,000 in recurring fees for the first year and $40,000 in fees for the second year.

Olson also reported that converting to software provided by a different company, Tyler Technologies, would cost only $236,342 to set up, followed by about $50,000 a year in recurring expenses.

Though the more expensive option, Olson argued that hiring NorthStar and ElectriCities would provide key improvements over the Logics system, as well as the expertise to get the billing conversion right. Olson noted the city spent far less when it tried — and failed — to convert to the Edmunds billing system last year.

“We got cheap, and we paid for it,” Olson said, a reference to the failed billing conversion that spurred months of late bills and questionable charges to thousands of city utility customers.

Olson said numerous city employees, including those in the finance, customer service and information technology departments, reviewed NorthStar’s and Tyler’s software. Both would integrate with the city's meter-reading technology, the city's other internal software and a pending “smart grid” system the city is looking to purchase from Nexgrid, he said.

NorthStar’s software is better than Tyler for several reasons, Olson said. First of all, the software provides a better user interface, featuring “single-screen functionality” and more automation that can help city employees work faster, he said. The software also will allow customers to set their own monthly billing dates, fulfilling a major priority for priority for city council, he said.

NorthStar’s software also will offer an online “customer portal” allowing customers to pay bills and check their account information — a feature Tyler’s software would offer as well. However, Olson reported that Tyler will charge customers a $2 fee “each time” they access their account online.

In implementing NorthStar, the company and ElectriCities will also provide more software customization and in-person training than Tyler would, according to an ElectriCities staffer, Alice Coggins, who spoke by teleconference at Thursday’s meeting. By contrast, Tyler would provide most training of city staff through its online “Tyler University,” she said.

After the city's bad experience with Edmunds, city councilors Thursday questioned whether NorthStar and ElectriCities could avoid the same pitfalls.

Councilor Johnnie Walton asked several questions during the presentation, including what ElectriCities would do if NorthStar couldn't import the city's data. Edmunds' software struggled to import certain meter data and generated numerous, seemingly random discrepancies in bill calculations, Olson noted.

Andy Fusco, a vice president for ElectriCities, said the conversion would require importing data from Logics, but he said ElectriCities has successfully converted several cities from Logics, and figured out “workarounds” to problems extracting data.

Walton also asked if the city had enough customer service staff to implement the conversion. Olson said he believed so, though Coggins said they should expect to work some overtime to get the conversion completed.

Mayor Bettie Parker asked a point-blank question: what guarantee does the city have that NorthStar and ElectriCities wouldn't cause billing problems for customers?

ElectriCities has successfully converted other cities to the NorthStar software, as well as the Nexgrid system, Fusco said, but he couldn't promise no problems would occur.

“I cannot sit here and look you in the eye and guarantee this will work 100 percent. I don't think any software implementation firm, if they were worth their salt, would say that,” Fusco said. “What I can say is I believe that the solution we're putting in front of you today is your best bet at mitigating the risk of a failed project implementation.”

The finance committee took no action on ElectriCities' proposal, making it unclear if the council will accept Olson's recommendation. A NorthStar representative is slated to make another presentation to council on Monday, according to Olson.

At Walton's request, Olson said he would try to schedule a presentation on Tyler's software.

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