With vacancy rates above 50%, Richmond Utilities staff can't keep up with estimated billing issues

Posted at 8:22 PM, Mar 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-14 20:38:02-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond Public Utilities is facing staff vacancy rates higher than 50% in some areas of its department, Director April Bingham revealed during an Audit Committee meeting at City Hall Tuesday afternoon.

The Richmond City Auditor's Office released a new report detailing several inefficiencies within the Department of Public Utilities (DPU), which have led to thousands of customers receiving inaccurate charges on their utility bills. The auditors presented their findings to a committee comprised of two City Council members, Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders, and citizen members.

The audit, which took 1,390 hours to complete, found DPU estimated more than 130,000 bills last year. Auditors reported that a large volume of estimated bills "negatively impacts the public's accurate and timely billings as customers may be charged large amounts after multiple months of estimated bills."

Nearly 10,000 of those bills were estimated for six months of the year, and just under 4,000 bills were estimated for all twelve months of the year. DPU's own policy states bills should not be estimated more than three times in a row.

Following the meeting, Bingham told CBS 6 reporter Tyler Layne a multitude of issues is contributing to a backlog of estimated billings.

“We are aware of every estimated bill, every estimated meter in our system. We’ve made a list. We’re working on it diligently," Bingham said.

Bingham listed the following challenges:

  • DPU's billing system is more than 40 years old
  • Meters and infrastructure are aging, including about 9% of electronic reading transmitters being more than 10 years old
  • A lack of oversight and accountability processes are in place to ensure customer concerns are addressed in a timely manner

Most significantly, however, there's simply not enough staff.

“The staffing levels that we have don’t allow us to keep up with the issues that we see," Bingham said, adding that staffing issues escalated during the pandemic.

Bingham is down more than half of the employees she needs in some fields of DPU, including leadership and management roles.

Currently, there are only 12 to 15 technicians who work on equipment in the field. There should be between 35 to 40.

In the call center, there are only 15 customer service agents. There should be 40.

“It is my number one goal to ensure that customer satisfaction is delivered, and I get that we're not doing that as often as we'd like," Bingham said.

“Do you think DPU is operating efficiently right now?” Layne asked.

“I think we are doing the best we have with the resources that are on staff," Bingham responded. "Once we are able to solidify those particular positions and bring people on board, I think we will be the ultimate utility."

Bingham told the Audit Committee that she's bringing in contractors to ramp up manpower as well.

In the short term, Bingham said she's making a commitment to resolve customer concerns about estimated bills within 1-3 months.

DPU will also be sending out messaging in the upcoming billing cycles to educate people on how to read their bills and recognize the difference between an estimated reading and an actual reading of their meter.

In the long term, Bingham aims to have all-new billing technology implemented by December 2025.

"A new billing system would bring about automation and innovation and technology. With a push of a button, we could see things and do things quicker, faster, smarter, and that's what I'm hanging my hat on for the long-term solution," Bingham said.

A member of the Audit Committee asked how much it would cost to fund replacements of DPU's aging infrastructure.

Bingham didn't offer a figure but said DPU would take a "phased approach" to upgrade equipment. She said her initial focus is to replace the infrastructure attached to the nearly 4,000 service lines that produced estimated bills for 12 months straight.

As far as recruiting and retaining staff, Bingham said she was grateful that the mayor proposed an 8% increase for city employees in next year's budget. The raise will impact all city departments and is not specific to DPU.

The mayor's proposal also includes a hike in utility rates that could amount to customers paying an extra $9 dollars per month. During the Audit Committee meeting, Saunders said the increase in rates would help cover the pay raise for city employees.

Bingham said it'll also help cover DPU operations.

"It's just the cost of doing business. In a post-COVID world, it really is. You've got less people offering services today. Those that do offer services, their prices are higher," Bingham said.

Despite challenges, Bingham said she won't "shy away" from the fight of improving DPU.

“A year from now, we won’t be having this conversation. A year from now, we will have things better. A year from now, we will look back and say, 'Wow, we did it,'" she said.