SEATTLE - A new utility billing system is millions over budget and months behind schedule. Some city council members showed frustration Monday, saying that no one ever made the problems clear to them as they passed a budget last year.
“There is nothing in this page or any other part of the budget that the council approved last year that indicates that there was a change from the budget that was approved in 2014,” said Councilmember Kshama Sawant as she looked through paperwork. “That kind of deciphering is done only in an audit. I would be happy to urge an audit of the budget…but this is what it comes down to.”
Sawant said the budget is over 750 pages long and the capital improvement program is over 850 pages long and that no one clued them into the fact the project will probably be at least $34 million over budget and about a year behind schedule.
“I’m just first of all challenging this notion that the city council was informed,” she said.
Seattle Public Utilities and City Light realized four years ago they needed a new billing system. The city is growing and there are more than 400,000 customers. Plus utilities need better services to protect customer data as well as give customer more advanced high-tech service paying bills.
“What we are talking about here is a once in a generation replacement of the way both Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities bill our customers and more,” said Ray Hoffman, Director of Seattle Public Utilities. “None of us are pleased with the fact that this schedule is behind. I want you all to recognize that we take this seriously.”
Ben Noble, Director of the City Budget, said information was provided to council.
“But I think what we failed to do is to be more proactively transparent about calling it out and telling particularly your staff because that’s who was going to be on the front lines of processing a whole bunch of information,” Noble said, pointing out the project spans the two departments and budget lines. “To get the full picture, you have to put the pieces together and we could’ve done a better job of doing that.”
Seattle City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen said, like all other services customers pay for, they might eventually see .07 cents to .14 cents more a month on their bill in connection to the program but that’s only if savings in other areas don’t happen. He said they will not adjust rates in 2016 as a result of this project.
“This is a foundational computer system that works with more than 40 other applications," Thomsen said. "It’s complex work to get them all to talk to each other correctly and these things are notorious for being difficult to do and they come with a lot of risks for delays and cost overruns.”
Hoffman said for the last two-plus years, there’s been more than a hundred staff between SPU and City Light working on the project and more than 600 city employees will be using aspects of the system when it’s complete.
Mayor Ed Murray released a statement to KING 5 after the meeting:
"I am frustrated that our utilities must delay the implementation of this new billing system,” the statement read. “It is critical, however, that the experience of Seattle customers is seamless as we transition later this year. The rising cost of this project is very disappointing, but I have directed the utilities to complete the project within currently adopted customer utility rates. My decision to consolidate the City's major technology projects in our new Seattle IT Department is intended to provide greater consistency in IT project management."