“Sometimes it’ll send data, and sometimes it won’t,” she added of the billing system. “We’ve recently discovered we might get one day’s worth of data in an entire month.”
Dazet said the plan to fix the problem includes a comprehensive investigation of all properties in Jackson.
Former Public Works Director Robert Miller recruited Dazet from Waggoner Engineering in October 2018 where she was in charge of government relations, marketing and business development.
“Mr. Miller asked me if I would come over and help him review some processes and take a look at what was failing over here, if I could help out,” Dazet told the Jackson Free Press in her office on June 15.
“Honestly, what made me come is interest in helping the system itself in general. I wanted to pitch in and see what I could do to fix the situation with the city.”
As it stands, the water and sewer administration makes enough money to maintain itself but generates nothing extra to provide resources to upgrade the system. Dazet said she hopes that the various improvements in the system will reverse this trend.
“The system itself is going to get a steady flow of operating money,” she said in anticipation. “We (in the water-sewer business administration division) operate, and we pay for our expenses, but (Public Works Director) Charles Williams has no money to go do any improvements. And so then he’s battling the elements without any ability to do what he needs to do.”
‘A Complicated Problem’
The City of Jackson is looking forward to October 2022 to get a new water-billing system running for everyone to hopefully lay the ghost of the botched Siemens billing system to rest. The Siemens contract resulted in an unprecedented loss of revenue to the tune of $20 million yearly.
“The billing system has caused many customers to receive inexplicably high bills that do not reflect their actual water usage,” it added. “In other instances, customers may receive no bill based on months of purported water usage.”
Siemens denied wrongdoing and settled the case in 2020.
In a city council meeting in November, Chief of Staff Safiya Omari elaborated on the problem, calling it “a very complex system of issues that we’ve had to address
“It was meter installation, meters installed improperly; it was software that was designed specifically for Jackson that we had no backup for, it was at the AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) system, whether the technology stuff on the top of the meter is actually being read by other pieces that need to read it and then transfer it to the billing system,” Omari said.
“It’s a complicated problem.”
She said the solution is in phases, first moving the data to the cloud from onsite servers and, second, getting the commercial meter. The third phase will focus on the residential meters “so that our residents can have faith that when they get a bill, that it’s the correct bill.”
Leaving Siemens Behind
The City now is seeking to put the Siemens morass behind it. Sustainability Partners Inc. will finance the procurement and set up hardware to run the new metering system as an infrastructure-as-a- service model. There are 62,000 meters overall; 4,400 are commercial and the rest residential. The City will change all of them.
After the rollout, rather than shelling out millions of dollars upfront, considering what happened with the Siemens contract, the City will pay $5.51 per meter monthly. Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba said at a special city council meeting on May 20 that the charge will not increase residents’ costs.
“There’s a $7 charge that is presently added to almost all of our residents’ (bills), and almost all of our residents get hit with that amount,” the mayor said. Eliminating that charge, he said, would ensure that residents will gain about $2.
Sustainability Partners’ Jason Hewitt mentioned the cost-saving feature of his proposed system. “We do believe that there will be an increase in revenue for the City,” he said. “In putting the system in place, over a period of 25 years, adjusted for inflation, you’re talking about approximately $375 million in recovered revenue that the City is going to enjoy moving forward.”
Hewitt said his company is putting up the capital for installing the new meters and is responsible for keeping it operational. He explained that the City will not pay the “rent” for any meter that is not functioning. When all meters are installed and operating, the City will pay an average of $421,803 monthly, according to documents Hewitt presented to the city council that day.
“We pay per month for the meter instead of owning the meter,” Dazet of the City said on June 15. “They’re going to pay for and also maintain them.” She explained that the installation will begin with a pilot program. “If the mayor says he doesn’t like it, it doesn’t work. We’re not going to go with that plan.”
‘This Is a Big Deal’
The new meters will cost about $19 million overall, the installation is about $8.6 million, and software implementation is $6,998,000, totaling $36,767,008. But the City will ultimately not pay a penny from its pocket in the infrastructure-as-a-service model. It is a far cry from the $90 million the City paid for the Siemens contract that ended up as a court case.
“This is a turnkey solution. There are many partners and vendors involved in it, and we’ve basically distilled all of those costs into a per-meter, per-month price so that it’s easy to understand and easy to track,” Hewitt said. The eventual cost includes the Oracle software upgrades contracted to Mythics, project management, training for the billing department.
“When items break and fail, which they will, Sustainability Partners and its contractors will change out those items, will fix those items, and there are no additional costs to the City,” Hewitt explained in May.
The City will get the Kamstrup water meter, Hewitt said. Utility Metering Solutions will do the installation.
“So you’re going from something that has many points of failure to a single contained device. It also offers acoustic leak detection, which is actually on the distribution side. So it will provide the ability to pinpoint leaks in order for the City to address those before they become bursts,” Hewitt told the city council. “But if you look at it moving forward, we’re predicting October 2022, that date, or hopefully prior, we will have replaced the system in its entirety.”
“So you got ineffective meters that aren’t measuring the water that goes through, and then you will also have distribution leaks that are in place in which it’s just leaking into the ground,” he added. “The other problem with that is you don’t know where those leaks are, right until there’s a burst and a pool of water. So this system really will address those types of things as well and enable the City to pinpoint and identify where leaks are before they turn into bursts.”
Ward 7 Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay at the meeting said she had studied such a public-private partnership program and is excited that the City is executing such a program. “This is an important day, and this is a big deal. And I am very excited that we are at this point. And I’m grateful that we’re going to have a way now to measure and pay attention to these leaks,” she said.
“I predict that once we finally get this done and it’s working properly, that there will be research papers done on this because I think that this is going to be a model that other cities can use as well.”
‘Service As Infrastructure’
Hewitt listed the benefits of his firm’s provision of the meters to the City as service. They include “annual calibration, annual testing of meters, making sure the system functions and meets the city’s needs, and that it’s based on some of the best, if not the best technology available to the City in the world,” he said. “There is no markup by Sustainability Partners on the products and services.”
“When items break and fail, which they will, Sustainability Partners and its contractors will change out those items, will fix those items, and there’s no additional cost to the city.”
WaterWorld.com reported that Advanced Metering Infrastructure is steps above an AMR—automatic meter reading—system, which is an improvement over manual meter reading. “Prior to the introduction of automatic meter reading, water utilities had to do everything by hand,” it said. “With AMR came the opportunity to utilize technology to reduce costs and improve productivity.” Advanced Metering Infrastructure is even more innovative and offers more operational efficiency.
AMI reads meters in real-time, rather than monthly with AMR, and will detect leaks faster when the available information indicates that water usage has been suspiciously continuous for one or more hours at a facility. AMI also enables fast detection of system leaks rather than waiting for pipes to burst. In addition, advances in the AMI system means customers will be able to monitor their usage online.
“An AMI network also offers the potential to go beyond metering, putting additional sensors into the network, such as distribution leak sensors, some remote shut-offs, and some pressure and water quality sensors,” Waterworld.com said in the 2016 article.
Digital Self-Service Ahead
Carla Dazet explained on June 15 that the ability to detect leaks on time will prevent the development of potholes on the street. “If you can detect leaks under streets, you can prevent potholes. If this leak-detection system does work, we will be proactive in finding these voids before they become big sinkholes in the middle of the road, because you’ll hear it.”
“And one thing that we’re doing in this new software exchange is we’re creating a digital self-service platform, so customers will be able to start their own service, stop service, move service, credit card, pay online all from like an iPad or their cell phone,” Dazet continued. “What this does is gives the customer the opportunity to take ownership of a lot of the problems that we have here with data, and they can manage their account and have more confidence that what we send out will be correct.”
The strategy will also come with the ability to put oneself on a payment plan and even move service between houses.
Dazet said in the June 15 interview that the City will introduce water billing digital self-service in August. “So you will have digital alerts, emails, texts, so you could sign up. So if your water spikes, you can get a text message, or if you miss your bill, it’ll text you,” she said.
But, Questions Remain
A portfolio manager with a multi-billion dollar water and energy technology company, who preferred to be unnamed because he is speaking in his individual capacity, said the City needs to get more specifics from Sustainability Partners about its guarantees for the project.
“If I’m really pitching something like infrastructure as a service or meter as a service, what that really should mean is that the hardware is a small portion of what I’m doing; the data management is a large portion of what I’m doing,” he said by phone on Friday, June 25.
“So if you take it simply like, OK, I’m going to provide computers as a service from Hewlett-Packard (technology company), the value comes in the software and what you get from that software, not just hardware. The hardware is a means to an end.”
He posited that Sustainability Partners should explain what it will do to help the City better understand its water distribution system to make better decisions.
“Besides paying for the meter, what are the outcomes I should expect from that meter? … Do I get better leak analysis? Do I get a better understanding of pressure in the system? Where is that knowledge; who is that knowledge then disseminated to? Or are you just saying I can give it to ‘Sally’ at the water department who really may not know what to do with them?” he explained further.
The portfolio manager leaned on the issue of staffing. “Who is actually going to really manage the network (and) who is going to deliver the data coming out as a service?” he asked. “Who is going to deliver that in a way that we either, whether it’s municipality or council, can actually make decisions based on that data.”
Dazet said that the problem of staff ability was an Achilles heel of Jackson’s doomed Siemens contract.
“You have a lot of the ladies here that used to run the legacy system; when they gave them the new Siemens system, they didn’t have any process changes. They use paper; they still did everything the old way,” Dazet said in the June 15 interview.
“So what we’re doing is we’re taking the new system, and we’re going to design a reworked organization around the new system with the staff, and whoever can do it can do it. And whoever can’t, we’ll have to, you know, find some people that understand the technology and can read it.”
Importance of Leak Sensors
The portfolio manager also questioned Hewitt’s assertion that the meter “offers acoustic leak detection,” wondering if they are going to provide such a system in the package or “are they just putting meters?”
“There are acoustic leak detectors, and those are put in between every three to four houses to figure out if there is a leak (in the area); you look at that and say, OK, I can isolate a leak,” he said. “(But) saying I offer leak detection that can be integrated into my meter does not necessarily mean I’m putting a leak detection system in.”
The Jackson Free Press reported in February about 61-year-old Barbara Tadley, a businesswoman forced out of town because her hotel facility ran up enormous bills after the installation of the Siemens meter. Government officials told her the hotel was leaking water, but repeated examination revealed no such thing. She left town with nearly $200,000 in unpaid water bills, saying she planned to file for bankruptcy.
“So that’s why when you don’t have things like leak detectors, what are you getting for data?” the marketing executive added in the June 25 interview.
“You’re getting for data that the meter was perhaps not reading the amount of the bill, but you’re not getting any data that (will help) you learn anything about your distribution system.”
He explained that it’s like getting an alarm system in the house that covers the doors. “That same system can accommodate window sensors,” he added, “But that doesn’t mean that you bought the packet that says we’re going to put window sensors around 24 windows in your house.”
“It (just) means that if you want to do it, you can do it,” he added. “Without a leak sensor, you’re getting data and (wondering), ‘hey, is this accurately reading your bill or my bill?’”
Email story tips to city/county reporter Kayode Crown at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @kayodecrown.