PUD to spend $18 million to fix billing problems

EVERETT — Snohomish County Public Utility District officials say they expect to have customer billing problems fixed by October. Additional workers brought in under contract will read every customer meter each month, eliminating the district’s need to estimate ratepayers’ bills every other month.

The plan is expected to cost about $18 million over three years. The PUD’s elected commissioners approved taking money from the utility’s reserves, rather than raising rates, to pay for the fix.

Changes to the utility’s billing system in September led to unexpected spikes in bills for thousands of customers, who flooded the PUD’s customer service office with calls for several months.

Earlier this year, PUD staff presented several options to the utility’s three elected commissioners, who opted for an old-school solution: reading every customer meter every month. Doing so would ensure customers were getting accurate bills.

The PUD is in final contract negotiations with a Kentucky-based contractor, TruCheck, to provide additional meter readers for at least three years. By that point, the utility plans to start using smart meters, which will electronically tell PUD computers how much electricity a customer used. Using a contractor rather than hiring more PUD staff will save the utility several million dollars, according to district staff.

The contractor is expected to provide 36 workers based at the PUD’s Halls Lake building in Lynnwood. TruCheck officials told the PUD they plan to hire local workers, said Will Odell, who’s managing the project for the district.

The plan has an “aggressive schedule,” he said.

Reconfiguring the PUD’s billing system will be the hardest part and could delay the fix if things don’t go smoothly, he said.

However, PUD workers and contractors aren’t starting from scratch. They largely are undoing changes they made last year to allow estimating bills, Odell said.

It is not as simple as erasing their earlier work though, he said. “Anytime you change the system’s configurations, you have to make sure you’re not breaking something else.”

Any changes will be carefully tested before going live to avoid that, he said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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