Petersburg works to filter water meter debacle

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 4/15/2016, 6:08 a.m.
Petersburg failed to upgrade its billing system so it could accept and use the data collected from the new digital …

Petersburg failed to upgrade its billing system so it could accept and use the data collected from the new digital water meters, despite Mayor W. Howard Myers and the Petersburg City Council making that a condition in approving the switch to the new meters.

The city also accepted the system from contractor Johnson Controls Inc. without running any tests to ensure the meters, the data reporting system and the billing system were ready.

And before the contract with JCI was signed, the city agreed to boost the $3.8 million contract with JCI by $1 million. The city also later agreed to a $300,000 change order that increased the total cost to more than $5 million.

Those are among the findings Paul Goldman of Morrissey & Goldman law firm is expected to share at a public meeting Mayor Myers has scheduled for Thursday, April 14, at Union Station.

The meeting is being held just three days after Mayor Myers survived an attempt by Petersburg City Council to replace him. The revolt was quelled when the interim city attorney, Mark Flynn, advised council members they have no authority to replace the mayor before his two-year term expires.

The new water meter system has been a disaster for the city and saddled upset residents with inaccurate and often inflated bills. It led to the firing of City Manager William Johnson III and the hiring of interim City Manager Dironna M. Belton, who is trying to clean up the mess. She has told residents that, by June, more accurate water bills should be delivered.

Still, questions linger of why this went so wrong for Petersburg.

The installation of the meters was based on the concept that Petersburg’s water system would cut costs and gain more revenue by more accurately billing customers. The old analog meters were at least 10 percent inaccurate, allowing more water usage than was shown, Mr. Goldman said.

The additional funds that JCI projected the city would gain from more accurate meters would be used, in part, to repay the cost of the digital meters and wireless receivers that would report usage. A proper billing system would receive the data wirelessly and then issue the bills.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, Mr. Goldman said it was a critical failure for Petersburg officials such as the city manager not to ensure the new digital meters worked as advertised and that the city’s billing system could receive and then send out accurate bills.

It’s not clear, Mr. Goldman said, whether JCI had any responsibility for the billing. But, he said JCI, which has installed meters in dozens, if not hundreds of cities, should have ensured the city knew the importance of having an adequate billing system in place before the system went live.

He said Mayor Myers introduced a resolution in 2013 that was approved by City Council stipulating to the city manager and the utilities department that the city could hire a company to replace the meters, but needed to get the billing system in shape.

Mr. Goldman said he also found no evidence that Petersburg officials tested the newly installed system before providing JCI with a certificate of substantial compliance with the contract.

And he said his research was incomplete on why Mr. Johnson and the city’s utilities officials approved increasing the amount of the contract with JCI.

Mr. Goldman began researching the water system foul-up at the request of then- City Attorney Brian Telfair, who was looking into bringing suit against JCI in the wake of the problems. Mr. Telfair said Morrissey & Goldman accepted a contingency contract that would allow the firm to receive a percentage of any money recovered from JCI if litigation was successful.

Mr. Telfair initially hired the law firm in February to represent beleaguered Mayor Myers. It was one of the final acts of Mr. Telfair, who resigned after the council agreed to pay him a severance package worth more than $50,000, which included paying for his unused vacation time and sick leave.

Mr. Goldman said this week that he was unable to finish his research. On March 21, Mr. Flynn terminated the contract, ending the firm’s representation of Mr. Myers and Mr. Goldman’s access to city documents and personnel.

Mr. Flynn has begun pitching the council on hiring his firm, Woodley & Flynn, to look into and report on the billing snafu, Mr. Telfair said.

Mayor Myers stated April 9, “It is not surprising my opponents, who claim they want all the facts, are now trying to prevent Mr. Goldman from telling the truth to the people of Petersburg about the water bill fiasco.”

A transcript of a private conversation the mayor had on Feb. 13 with state Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance of Petersburg was released last week.

In a statement Mayor Myers issued Saturday, he claimed Sen. Dance threatened during the conversation to withhold money from Petersburg unless he did what she wanted.

Indeed, at one point, she warns him that Petersburg “will get no state money. You will get no federal money” for new projects.

However, the full transcript shows the mayor called Sen. Dance, a former Petersburg mayor, and was seeking her advice ahead of a public presentation on Feb. 15, where he planned to present bad news about the size of Petersburg’s budget shortfall, problems with the water meters, the millions of dollars in bills owed to private and public entities and about a critical audit.

The transcript shows the conversation is mostly amicable, with Sen. Dance urging Mayor Myers to show leadership at the meeting by proposing to clean house at City Hall and replacing the city manager and other officials who have let the city down.

Frustrated by his noncommittal responses, Sen. Dance tells him action is needed because Petersburg government is “like a laughingstock” because of its multiple problems.

That’s when she makes the point about funding, telling him she cannot go to bat for funding for Petersburg because she does not want to look like a fool in urging the governor to steer money to a city that “cannot handle” the money it has.

She also tells Mayor Myers that she has tried to avoid public criticism, but also tells him she might have to go public because of the flood of calls she is getting from businesses that have gone unpaid and from citizens fed up with the water billing problems. She said she hadn’t received a water bill in months.

However, she tells him that she is advising, not dictating. Her final point to him is to “control the message” and to do the research to ensure the facts he presents at the public meeting are items he “personally checked … out.”