Utility billing upgrade on schedule


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Elizabeth City officials are sticking to June 10, 2019, as the “go-live” date for switching utility customers to a new billing software, despite facing “hiccups” with making customer data usable for the new system.

Last week, City Manager Rich Olson and Assistant City Manager Angela Cole recapped the city's work so far with Tyler Technologies. Their presentation came during an update on the council's official, wide-ranging “goals and objectives.”

The city hired Tyler this summer for more than $400,000 over three years to upgrade the city from the decades-old Logics Classic software to Tyler's Incode software.

The city is now “shin-deep,” not quite knee-deep, in the upgrade, Cole told the council. City staff started holding twice-a-month telephone conferences with Tyler Project Manager Nancy Brady and other company employees last month, and the company is finishing a business process review to map out the next steps of the complex project. The upgrade involves switching meter data, payment histories and more from the city's nearly 13,000 utility customers to a new software.

However, Olson told the council the city is facing “hiccups” in the “critical” conversion of customers' data to a modern, usable file format for Tyler's software. Data conversion problems were a key reason the city's last attempt to abandon Logics failed more than a year ago, causing late and confusing bills that upset customers.

In a followup interview Monday, Olson and Cole explained Logics runs on an outdated programming code that doesn't easily convert to modern spreadsheet formats, such as those used by Excel and similar programs. When the city did a “data pull” from a few thousand accounts, certain columns didn't convert properly, yielding some “junk characters,” they said.

Olson also said the problems appeared to be random, and not focused on a particular kind of account or customer.

Olson and Cole expressed confidence the city, Tyler and a consultant the city hired, Patrick Newcomb, could resolve the issue. The Town of Farmville resolved the same problem working through its conversion, they said.

Olson said the city expects to work out the data conversion issues by January. However, as he told the council last week, the city has a “workaround” if conversion errors persist: manual data entry. Asked how many staff hours that would take, and if it would require hiring temporary part-time help, Olson said city staff hadn't looked at that yet. It will make the conversion more expensive, though, he told council.

Olson and city department heads several times this year urged the council not to hire Tyler, and instead hire a costlier company they said offered a better product with more support. However, last week, Olson and Cole praised Tyler as good to work with so far.

Olson also explained that Dane Womble, a divisional president for Tyler, had learned of the city's reservations. That's made the company especially committed to overcoming “bad publicity” and making Elizabeth City's upgrade succeed, Olson said.

“That's why he personally was here in Elizabeth City,” Olson said, referring to Womble. “We had very lengthy discussions from a public relations point of view, and he is dedicated to us that he'll have proper resources here to make that work.”

Olson and Cole also said Monday that Tyler will demonstrate its current Incode software to city staff next week. The software has been improved to do more without switching to different windows or tabs, Olson said.

If so, that would address one of city staff's arguments against Tyler earlier this year; they said Incode lacked “single-screen functionality” and would not make customer service representatives' work easier or faster.

Olson also said that, so far, neither Tyler nor the city's consultant, Newcomb, have been paid anything yet. The city has estimated Tyler will be paid about $250,000 in its first year, while Olson said Monday the city expected to pay Newcomb $100 an hour for around 100 hours of work, or about $10,000 total.