NEW ORLEANS -- The Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans said it plans to spend $168,675 to fix its problem-plagued billing system and provide additional training for its employees on how to use it.
Last week, board executives told the New Orleans City Council the additional training and software fixes would run half a million dollars, leading to big questions from the council about the software company, Cogsdale, hired to modernize the system.
Robert Miller was Deputy Director of the S&WB when the public utility contracted with Cogsdale in 2014.
One month before the switch from a 1980’s mainframe system to windows-based software, Miller spoke at a Lakeview community meeting and got an earful from customers concerned about climbing water bills.
Miller had been tasked with managing the project, but since it’s implementation one-in-four customers has initiated an investigation with the S&WB because of a questionable bill.
Instead of improving problems with billing, the new software appears to have made it worse.
The City Council’s Public Works Committee called S&WB leaders to a hearing on June 25 to try to uncover the root of the problem.
“We wanted to know is it a meter reader problem? Is it a people problem? Is it a software problem? And as we started peeling back the layers on June 25, Cogsdale is one of the issues that came to the service,” said District A City Council Member Joe Giarrusso.
Cogsdale is the Canadian software company the S&WB board has paid $4.8 million to modernize their system.
The company was awarded the contract in 2014 through a public bid process. Nine software companies showed interest in the contract, with four of them owned by the same parent company, Harris Utilities.
While the two finalists for the S&WB contract, Cogsdale and Advanced Utilities are both owned by Harris, nothing in S&WB policy prohibits them from both bidding on the contract.
Cogsdale did not respond to a request for comment.
The S&WB has said it's not the software that's the problem, it's the amount of training employees received on how to use it.
“We now know that it was not sufficient,” Jade Brown-Russell, S&WB Interim Executive Director, told the council.
It was miller's job to implement the new software and he said in an email that at least 150 employees were trained on it before he left the agency in October 2016. They had to pass four tests to obtain a "certification" on it before they were allowed to use it.
As recently as last August, records show three managers were sent to another advanced training on the Cogsdale system in New Jersey.
Less than a month before he left the board, when he was interim Executive Director, Miller spoke at a City Council hearing on billing problems.
“We agree that those affected customers deserve better,” he told the council.
Miller is now Public Works Director for Jackson, Ms.
In an email Thursday, Miller defended Cogsdale's billing system saying, "The fact of the matter is that no software will work properly if the managers and supervisors do not ensure that the front-line workers are using it properly and consistently."
Despite that, S&WB leaders said they are hoping $113,925 in training will help shrink the number of sky-high bills.