City tech specialists are hoping to upgrade the city's utility billing software, though many factors have made the process more difficult than originally anticipated.

PETERSBURG — The search for solutions to Petersburg’s utility billing issues continues.

With residents still experiencing inaccurate water billing, the city is desperately trying to find a way improve the billing process.

The city’s technology specialists, Gerrit VanVoorhees and Dileep Rajun, are currently spearheading the effort to obtain more effective billing software.

For reasons unclear, in the contract that the city signed with Johnson Controls in 2015 for new water meters, the software Johnson Controls provided did not match up with the software the city had. This major deficiency has been a driving force behind many of the billing problems.

The billing software is currently housed in an outdated BAI AS400 legacy system, which makes reading the data extremely difficult.

“The big understanding that we have is that the process and the systems which we are using need to be addressed,” said Rajun. “The technology right now does not track the analytics-type questions we need to answer.”

More current software would make analytics from each water customer (water usage, meter size, etc.) easier to access and read. More current software would also let officials more easily track the payment history of each customer.

Rajun and VanVoorhees are currently mulling over several options as to how to best replace the software, although the uncertainty with the water system makes the process tricky. The city planned on outsourcing the billing department to a private company, which would change the software needs.

“Until that is concluded, or we make that decision, it wouldn’t be prudent for us to search for anything else,” said Rajun.

The city did put out a Request For Proposal (RFP) for utility billing earlier in the summer, but officials were disappointed by the responses.

“The responses we got to the RFP for billing were not sufficient,” said VanVoorhees. “None of the responses met what we were looking for.”

Rajun said they will continue to look for companies who can provide the city what officials are looking for in regards to utility billing.

In addition to the possible outsourcing of utility billing, the city council is still pondering over potentially selling the water system entirely, causing even more uncertainty as to how the billing will be improved. The PPEA process, however, could take at least several more months, depending on what the council decides when they revisit the issue in September.

In the meantime, Rajun and VanVoorhees are looking at ways to improve the existing billing module which is housed in the BAI AS400 system. Many billing problems could be solved if officials had more access to analytics, which are not provided with the current software.

“The data that comes out of the system is not very user friendly,” said VanVoorhees. “It’s an old system that’s technically functional, but we need to improve the process.”

The city also received a report from Severn Trent Services containing an analysis and recommendation on utility billing. Rajun said he will continue to “pick the brain” of Severn Trent as the city continues to search for answers. The company outlined several deficiencies in the billing process. For the short-term, they recommended that the city improve and increase the information on the city website, as well as provide payment options available online.

In the upcoming months as decisions about the water system are made, the city’s tech specialists hope to have a more clear insight as to what software upgrades will work best for utility billing.

“By the end of the year, we hope to have more answers,” said VanVoorhees.

The utility billing is just one part of the city’s technological infrastructure that officials are hoping to overhaul. Several new sites, like OpenGov and CityWorks have been launched in hopes of making city processes more efficient and transparent.

“Tech has been a lower priority," said Rajun, "but now it's coming up."

•John Adam may be reached at jadam@progress-index.com or 804-722-5172.