Two City of Salem utility account holders, Mike and Debbie Murphy, in a July 20 utility committee meeting voiced concerns regarding how utility billing problems that have persisted since November, 2019, happened in the first place.
“I couldn’t comprehend how, if you were doing it one way up until you decided to change, there was no back up plan; but yet when I received that letter – my three-month catch up letter – all my meter readings were there,” said Mike Murphy. “As the city, those are dollars. Those are actual expenditures you weren’t receiving. That’s a lot of money.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” Debbie Murphy chimed in. “We’re not one that’s hurting on this, but there’s a whole lot of people that we know in this town that are, and if they had been getting bills like they should have been getting bills this probably would not be an issue.
“So, whose responsibility is it or was it to make sure there was a back-up plan before all this occurred?
“Now, we’ve got citizens that are facing cut offs, we have citizens that are worried. Are they going to pay their utility bill that’s outrageous or buy their medicine, or go to the store and buy food?”
Debbie Murphy said that she thinks it all ultimately boils down to identifying who is responsible.
They also asked about recording meetings for public access. The committee agreed that they believe that the meetings should be recorded.
“That gives people the chance to see what’s actually taking place,” said Mike Murphy. “You can only put so much in the newspaper. If you typed everything up it would take 50 pages in the newspaper to record everything that the city goes through every week. If you can livestream a football game, you can certainly livestream your city meetings.”
According to Mike Murphy that would alleviate the community’s ability to complain about what’s going on because if they took the time they could tune in to the meetings.
“Your statement is well taken,” utility committee member John Hambacker responded to the Murphys. “And as a result of the installation of these new meters, it has created a problem, and I’ve had the same questions that you’ve had, in terms of what went on internally that created this. Now as a committee, we’re basically in the process of trying to resolve this and get people caught up. I don’t really know how that’s going to work either. Obviously, we still have a lot of problems.”
Debbie Murphy then asked, “So, you just said the statement, you were kind of in the middle of the committee trying to find what caused this. Have you found that out?” she asked.
Salem City Administrator Ray Walden responded to Murphy’s query.
“We have an independent engineering firm doing the assessment of the project, and they gave the board and released a public report on the assessment of who is responsible for what and the status of the project, and the steps needed to complete the project. We’re basically on the tail end of completing the process,” he said.
“Can the public get this?” Debbie Murphy asked.
“Sure. It’s a public document,” said Walden. “I’ll look at getting that posted on our website tomorrow (July 21), and if you want to give me your email, I’ll gladly email it to you.”
“Not everyone is going to come to you and ask for this. This should be publicly available,” said Debbie Murphy.
“We’ll explore ways that we can make it absolutely publicly available,” Walden said. “We have a website, we have a Facebook page, we can put a copy of it in the next bill if that’s of interest to the committee.”
As of Monday, the above-mentioned report is not on the City of Salem website. The Salem News emailed Walden inquiring about the report.
“The report was shared at the Oct. 15, 2020, Utility Committee Meeting and referenced in the attached Oct. 20, 2020 Salem News article,” Walden wrote in his emailed response. “I’m working to get it linked on the city’s website and will let you know when it’s available.”
That 2020 article states that the board of aldermen reviewed a report from BHMG Engineers, which is the firm the City of Salem hired to help fix the utility billing problem that had at that time gone on for nearly a year. The article centers on a letter that BHMG sent to Walden Oct. 15, 2020. The letter outlined a step-by-step process of how to complete the AMI Metering and Incode Billing Project.
At a specially called board of aldermen meeting held August 20, 2020, the board approved a $15,000 proposal by BHMG Engineers to study the AMI meter system implementation, its interaction with the Incode utility billing system and a plan to correct any gaps.
The board had requested an outside consultant be brought in to help address several months of utility billing issues.
Walden also, at that time, told the utility committee that aldermen had requested an outside consultant do an assessment of the AMI electronic meter project, what remained to finish it and a post-project audit to review billing procedures.
At that time, according to Walden, the firm was set to begin its fieldwork to produce a report. BHMG is an engineering firm the city had an existing relationship with.
The Oct. 15 letter that Walden referenced in his email to The Salem News Monday does not appear to address who is responsible for causing the utility billing problems. That letter is now (as of July 27) posted on The City of Salem website called "10/15/20 AMI/CIS System Integration Project Progress Review".
Utility Committee chairman, alderman Shawn Bolerjack, thanked the Murphys for their comments.
“We’ll take everything that you’ve said tonight under consideration as far as making the document public and accessible and being able to livestream future meetings,” he said.
Minutes and the packet from the July 20 utility board meeting can be found on the City of Salem website.