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A timeline of actions & decisions that led to the recent Ferndale utility billing mess

Snippet of a City of Ferndale utility invoice (March 15, 2017). Photo: My Ferndale News

FERNDALE, Wash. — Ferndale Mayor Greg Hansen said in an email to Council Member Ali Hawkinson he realized something was amiss when emails started arriving after the May 4th City Council meeting.

Hi Greg,
I know that I am now just one of many people that I am sure are bringing this issue up but the sewer charges on my bill this month and apparently going forward, which is unreal. I own a house less than 1000 SQFT with one bathroom. The house is only occupied by my wife and myself. We never water the lawn or wash our cars etc. Very fastidious with our water. I have lived in Bellingham and paid their bills and when people here complained I always said, “It’s just like everywhere else, sorry you feel that way” but with this rate increase it is just untenable.

To City of Ferndale Board Members,
I have been living in Ferndale for the past 9 years and Sewer and water rates have risen ridiculously high. I just receive my water bill and I had a $700 dollar water Bill. My water was on $150 dollars and over $500 of this was for sewer. How can you justify charging people this amount of money for SEWER?

… if I charged clients the way the city of Ferndale is charging residents our company would have been out of business. I can not understand how this is allowed to continue. Some people on social media sites are wanting residents to just stop paying.

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That is not really how I like to do things but I can sure see why residents feel they have no choice. From what I’ve experienced and heard from others it does absolutely no good to complain or ever try to get an explanation because it falls on deaf ears.

The above emailed messages were from utility customers after receiving their April 30th City of Ferndale utilities invoices. This was to be the second utility billing, including the February 28th, that utilized a new rate schedule proposed by city staff and approved by the City Council late last year after a rate study.

The new rate structure uses average water use during non-summer months (winter averaging) to compute sewer cost during the following year. This is intended to prevent garden irrigation and other summer water uses, that do not result in higher sewer volumes, from increasing utility customers’ sewer costs on summer billings and to smooth out utility costs to customers.

The emails were responses to corrections on city utility customers’ April 30th invoices that were due to miscalculations that appeared on February 28th invoices.

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Neither the February billing errors nor the April billing corrections had been communicated to utility customers. It appears in the timeline below that effort was made to ensure the corrections were not easily visible on the April billing. The vendor that calculates invoice amounts assured city staff that corrections “will NOT show as a credit or balance forward on the April bills” and the vendor that prints and mails the invoices was instructed by city staff to remove the “Total Current Charges” line from the April billing on more than 2800 invoices because “the totals won’t match up.”

As a result of these decisions and other actions, invoices sent on April 30th showed sewer costs that included balance forward amounts and the corrections due to the February 28th billing error. This resulted in sewer charges reported to range from large credit (negative) amounts to several hundred dollars over what was expected.

While customers ended up only being billed the total of what was owed over the 2 billing cycles, the unexpected sewer costs on the April billing, extreme in some cases, created concern of billing inaccuracies and the resulting reaction.

The following is a timeline created from select email communications provided by the city in response to a public records request submitted by My Ferndale News. Missing from this timeline are communications that occurred by phone or in-person but it does shed light onto when problems were realized and some of the actions and decisions that followed.

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Friday, March 6th

  • 2:23pm – City accounting department staff emailed support staff at Vision Municipal Solutions, a data processing service hired to calculate individual invoice amounts, “I don’t think the system is calculating correctly. Can someone give me a call so we can walk through this?”
  • 3:30pm – City Communications Officer Riley Sweeney sent a “Utility Bills FAQ” email to councilmembers. It is said “to provide councilmembers with some background information that they can use to respond when they receive questions” in anticipation of complaints expected whenever utility bills are mailed.
  • 4:02pm – Councilmember Ryan O’Larey replied to Sweeney’s email with a spreadsheet “that calculates what a 2020 bill would look like vs your 2019 bill assuming you use the same amount of water.” He added, “It appears, based on my calculations of the bills I’ve seen posted, that the calculations are using only February 2020 for the ‘winter’ average. thought we were going to use the 2019 winter average for the 2020 data. I might have misunderstood.”

Monday, March 9th

  • 8:37am – Accounting staff emailed Vision support staff, “Talked to [Vision support #1] on Friday about the averaging not working right. After that conversation both my co-workers validated my claim that checking the ‘average sewer’ on the bill posting averaged everyone’s sewer when we were only trying to average for Single Family and Duplex. They remember having a conversation about it before the bills were outsourced.”
  • 11:24am – Accounting staff replied via email to O’Larey’s question about winter averaging on the February billing, “The City is averaging the four 2019 billing cycles that cover winter months, and using that number as consumption for sewer on every billing cycle in 2020. The four bills include February, April, June and December, and cover months October through May. We do not include the Summer months of June through September (August and October bills) in the winter averaging.”
  • 12:30pm – O’Larey replied to the accounting staff’s email pointing out that, based on bills customers had provided him, it appeared winter averaging was not being used to compute the sewer cost. Instead, he said, it appeared the actual water usage during the billing period was used. “Had we used the 2019 data as your note says, the bills would generally be lower.”
  • 2:19pm – Accounting staff emailed Vision support, “Still looking for a follow-up on this? ETA?”

Tuesday, March 10th

  • 8:29am – Accounting staff email Vision support, “I spoke with [Vision support #1] on Friday and didn’t hear back that day. I emailed yesterday in the morning and then again at 2:20 in the afternoon and didn’t hear back. I need to get some answers on this sewer averaging issue. I was told a report could be run to see how much we overcharged single family and duplex customers. Can I please get an ETA on this? My direct line is XXX-XXX-XXXX.”
  • 10:46am – [Vision support #2] replies, “[Vision Support #1] is out of the office today and unfortunately I’m not aware of the current status of this ticket. I will ask the development team if they are working on this for [Vision Support #1] once they are out of their meeting. I will update you if I learn more, but we may have to wait for [Vision Support #1] to return tomorrow. Thank you for your patience.”
  • 10:49am – Accounting replies to [Vision support #2], “Unfortunately this was a massive billing error of Visions part. I need some answers today. I’m happy to run over it with you, but I’ve been waiting on [Vision Support #1] for two days for a report he said he could run in 10 minutes. We need to figure out the repercussions of the error ASAP so we can work to correct them”
  • 11am – [Vision support #2] notes on the support ticket, “Called and spoke with [accounting staff], we talked through the ‘report’ that [Vision support #1] was going to send and the issue. I will work with development and get back to [account staff] as soon as possible.”
  • 2:30pm – [Vision support #2] notes on the support ticket, “the process that we need to complete ‘parallel bill run’ is giving us an error when running it. This is the reason [Vision support #1] wasn’t able to send you the report. We will work on this today and let you know more as soon as we do.”
  • 4:42pm – [Vision support #2] notes on the support ticket, “Called and spoke with [accounting staff], we were able to clear the sewer averaging and setup on the Single Family and Duplex. [Accounting staff] will go through some of the larger average due to leaks that they know need to be changed then send us a response to this email. Once we receive that response we will complete the parallel billing.”

Wednesday, March 11th

  • 9:58am – Accounting staff informed Vision support that changes had been made and the parallel billing report can be run.
  • 10:54am – [Vision support #1] emailed a report to accounting staff
  • 12:55pm – Accounting staff informed [Vision support #1] they have questions about the report.

Monday, March 16th

  • 8:35am – [Vision support #2] noted on the support ticket, “[Vision support #1] sent the parallel for [accounting staff] to compare and let us know what needs to be updated. Waiting to hear back.”
  • 8:51am – Account staff apologized for not replying sooner, having been out on Friday, March 13th. “The report [Vision support #1] sent me didn’t have everyone that should have been averaged. It had less than half from what I can see. I even grabbed a few accounts to find on the report and they weren’t there. I think it needs to be run again.”
  • 9:32am – [Vision support #1] noted on the support ticket they can called and spoke with the account staff.

Tuesday, March 17th

  • 2:27pm – [Vision support #1] sent a new file to accounting staff. “Here is an updated list.”

Friday, March 27th

  • 8:51am – Accounting staff emailed Vision support, “[Vision support #1] has been working on a parallel sewer report for me but we really need it to pull every single duplex and single family customer. I know there are probably customers who were charged what their average was supposed to be, but she wants to see the entire picture. I think there were close to 4050 customers on the sewer averaging list and this report only pulls 3008 of those. With everything going on and my co-workers taking “shifts” at work, I really want to get this wrapped up with plenty of time to spare before the next bill goes out.”
  • 10:52am – [Vision support #1] emailed accounting staff, “… when I filter for those 2 groups I get 3654 accounts. Out of those 3654 accounts 790 of them have an estimate of 0 so that could explain why we are missing a couple hundred accounts. If they weren’t using sewer to begin with they wouldn’t need an adjustment so they shouldn’t be on the parallel.”
  • 5:26pm – Account staff advised [Vision support #1], “Those numbers are not adding up. We looked over this together and found the 4000+ customers. There’s no way you could only be pulling 3600 accounts now.”

Thursday, April 9th

  • 11am – Accounting staff emailed Vision support, “I’m going through my own report right now and need to be 100% sure that what’s in the Sewer Averaging for Single Family and Duplexes is correct. Can someone call me and go through our system one more time before I pull those numbers.”

Friday, April 17th

  • 1:13pm – Account staff emailed City Finance Director Salminen, “I think the parallel report is ready for your review. I’ve attached the final version so you can see everything I’ve done and how many new owners I’ve taken off the list. Right now, we have 3828 accounts on the list. Of those, 934 have no credit or charge because they used their average. I’ve take off the leaks that we’ve already adjusted, new owners that will be charged their consumption as normal and new accounts that weren’t billed in February and have no average in the system so they will get charged their normal consumption as well. [Utility clerk] went through all the zero reads and has a lot of work orders out to SLIPS to have them checked. Some of them should actually be zero and there is a separate tab in this workbook that shows all her notes. She has a list of ones that should be back billed and were caught because of this process. I’ve got [Utility clerk] looking over this as well just to have some more eyes on it (plus one that’s questionable with a work order out). Based on this sheet, for the customers that should have been billed an average, our total billing cycle for 2.28.20 was $451,112.90 and it should have been $454,485.86. Let me know what you think. I’m going to keep looking over it to make sure I didn’t forget a layer or miss something. Once I get the ok from you, I’m going to send it to [Vision support #1] so he can look over it and start thinking about how to make this work on his end.”
  • 3:03pm – Accounting staff emailed [Vision support #1], “I’m still double checking this report for large variances that need to be adjusted, but I wanted to send it to you so you could get an idea of what I’ve been doing with the Vision reports. Again, this isn’t the final. I’ve taken off all the customers who used their average and wouldn’t have received a credit or been charged. The accounts on this list are the ONLY ones that need an adjustment. There were a lot of new owners who’s sewer wasn’t averaged for February and it should stay that way (I’ve deleted the calculated usage in the system). We are giving them time to establish and average to be charged in 2021. We will connect on Monday about it to find out what the process is going to be like on the back end. I have a saved version of this information so you can manipulate this if needed.”

Monday, April 20th

  • 9:53am – Accounting staff emailed [Vision support #1], “I’m ready to go over this when you are.”

Tuesday, April 21st

  • 9:45am – Accounting staff emailed [Vision support #1], “I’m done with your list. Now looking at the ones I have that your list doesn’t. Can you call me quick to make sure I’m adding what you need?”
  • 12:52pm – Accounting staff emailed [Vision support #1], “This is ready to go BUT I need you to look over it with me because it’s not as straight forward as just ‘hitting the button.’ We have some differences that need to be looked at.”
  • 3:22pm – Accounting staff emailed city utility clerk and Director Salminen, “I’ve attached both reports on the Parallel Billing that I’ve been working off of. Everything having to do with the Parallel Billing is now under a folder in Utility Billing labeled “Parallel Billing 2.28.20.” There are 43 manual adjustments we are going to need to make on our end and [Vision support #1] is going to take care of the remaining adjustments. He will be taking about 41 off his report (so we don’t give additional adjustments to the leak adjustments we’ve already given) and then he’s going to run it. He has assured me that these will NOT show as a credit or balance forward on the April bills.

    [Utility clerk] – I would recommend walking through the steps ONE more time with [Vision support #1] before the bills get processed just to make sure we don’t have to do this song and dance again for April and that the sewer portion of the SF and Duplexes are averaged. There are going to be quite a few we need to back bill but all of them should be corrected going forward since we did them as we were working through this process.

    If you feel the need to look over these reports and have questions just let me know.”

Wednesday, April 22nd

  • 8:57am – [Vision support #1] emailed accounting staff, “Getting everything taken care of took a little longer than I had planned, but I am ready to generate the adjustment right now.”
  • 12:45pm – After some minimal exchanges, the report was run. Accounting staff emailed [Vision Support #1], “I can tell you right now that this adjustment posting is wrong. XXXXX (and XXXXX) is not on the parallel report you ran the first time and is not on the one I ran, not to mention it’s Commercial. This is a $14,229.95 credit that shouldn’t be there. The one below it, account XXXXX is wrong too. It looks like some of the accounts that the City was going to manually enter are a part Of this adjustment posting also. The first 5 1 checked are on this adjustment posting and they are being CREDITED the amount they were BILLED on 2.28, not the difference. We would be giving them back all the money they paid. I’m not having [city utility clerk] enter any manual adjustments until this report matches the one we both looked at yesterday. Right now it’s off by just shy of $3000 and the total customers is incorrect too.”

Thursday, April 23rd

  • 2:06pm – Accounting staff emailed [Vision Support #1], “I emailed yesterday letting you know that the “Parallel Billing 2.28.20″ adjustment posting was wrong and have not received a response. The next set of bills needs to go out on 4/30 and sent to Databar for processing on 4/28. We’re getting a little too close to not have results yet. With the exception of about 41 accounts, that parallel report Vision generated should have been processed without issue. We have 40+ manual accounts that need to be added as well. I’m asking that someone please rerun the parallel report to match the numbers that both [Vision Support #1] and I agreed were correct. This needs to be done and completed by the end of the week as this is additional work on top of our Utility Billing Clerks already time sensitive duties.”
  • 4:48pm – [Vision Support #1] emailed accounting staff, “I removed all of the charges from the parallel billing run that should not have been in there. I accidentally pulled in all of the sewer charges instead of the residential sewer charges. I ran a report and confirmed that those were the only charges currently in the parallel.”

Friday, April 24th

  • 8:24am – Accounting staff emailed [Vision Support #1], “This is still not right. Why does the parallel you sent me have 2840 (2841 with a header) and your adjustment posting only has 2730 accounts? Maybe you should export all 2730 accounts and match them up with the parallel report and add the difference manually We need these numbers to match by the end of the day.”
  • 10:50am – Vision Municipal Solutions Owner Craig Lodgard emailed accounting staff, “I am trying to help [Vision Support #1] figure out what the next step needs to be to resolve the sewer billing discrepancy. Do you have the copy of the spreadsheet that [Vision Support #1] sent you to help analyze? If you do, would you please send me a copy so I can review it?”
  • 12:19pm – Accounting staff sent Lodgard the spreadsheet with an explanation of its components.

Monday, April 27th

  • 11:46am – Accounting staff emailed Lodgard, “Do we have an update on this? [Utility clerk] is going to need to manually enter her 43 before these bills go out to be printed tomorrow afternoon.”
  • 3:08pm – Lodgard replied, “[Vision Support #1] and I are reviewing the spreadsheet right now. He will call you shortly.”
  • 3:25pm – [Vision Support #1] emailed accounting staff, “I think I know what’s going on. I’m rerunning the report to see if I can get the correct totals.”
  • 4:09pm – [Vision Support #1] emailed accounting staff, “Can you give me a call real quick? I need to ask you about the bill count.”
  • 4:25pm – Accounting staff replied, “Just tried to call. Call me back on my cell ###-###-####.”
  • 4:29pm – Accounting staff emailed Salminen, “[Vision Support #1] is just about done with this run. He’s going to delete the ones that shouldn’t be on there and send me the list. We will still be off by maybe 30 so I’m going to figure out which ones are the duplicates. Honestly, I don’t feel like I’ve gotten much accomplished today so I may just work this out tonight so we can add in the 43 tomorrow and not completely jam up [Utility clerk]’s day.”

Tuesday, April 28th

  • 3:45pm – Accounting staff emailed Salminen, “I chased a few discrepancies, but we’re matching to the penny with what’s in the adjustment posting. I gave [utility clerk] the go ahead to post it and submit the bills.”

Wednesday, April 29th

  • 8:18am – Databar Inc., hired by the city to accept the invoice data and print and mail individual invoices, confirmed receipt of the data for printing 5,462 invoices.
  • 8:59am – [Utility clerk] emailed Databar, “Please hold on processing these bills for right now.”
  • 9:31am – Databar confirmed they have stopped printing and are awaiting instructions.
  • 11:47pm – Accounting staff emailed Databar support asking for assistance in resolving an issue with the billing.
  • 12:15pm – Accounting staff emailed Databar support, “I’ve attached a list of account numbers to this email per our phone conversation. Please REMOVE the Previous Balance and ADD the Previous Balance total to the sewer detail for these account only (hopefully I said that right?). Let me know if this doesn’t work out like we hoped! Again, thank you so much for taking the time to correct this error. It’s greatly appreciated.
  • 1:49pm – Databar support emailed accounting staff, “I got 2864 matches. Good enough?”
  • 2:08pm – Accounting staff replied to Databar support, “I’m good with that. We can explain the difference if people call.”
  • 3:34pm – Accounting staff replied to Databar support, “I can still see a balance forward on these?”
  • 4:24pm – Accounting staff emailed [utility clerk], “These are samples of what the ‘adjusted’ bills are going to look like. Some of them are weird and we’re going to have to explain them as the phone calls come in. Most are ‘normal’ but #### for [name redacted] is a weird one. They double paid their February bill and the credit forward shows in their sewer. Not ideal, but a handful are better than 2800. We will just have to explain them as if they happened to ONLY that customer.”
  • 4:28pm – Accounting staff emailed Databar support, “Can you change the ‘Total Due’ on these? The ‘Current Total’ is not including the balance forward.”
  • 4:29pm – Accounting staff emailed Databar support, “Or possibly take off the ‘Current Total’ for that list I sent you.”

Thursday, April 30th

  • 8:22am – Accounting staff emailed Databar support, “Did you get my email last night about taking the Total Current off those selected accounts? The totals won’t match up if it’s still on there.”
  • 8:26am – Databar support replied, “No I didn’t. OK remove the current charges. Will do.”
  • 9:21am – Databar support emailed accounting staff, “Do you want it to disappear for everybody or just the affected records?”
  • 9:56am – Accounting staff replied, “Just the accounts we dealt with yesterday.”
  • 11:22am – Accounting staff emailed Databar support, “The ‘Current Total’ was taken off everyone’s rather than the 2800+ accounting I sent you yesterday. I feel to save time we should just go ahead with the printing without the Current Total. The bills need to go out asap. Please process.”

After the April 30th invoices were printed and mailed, utility customers began contacting city officials asking about sewer billing cost figures that were not what was expected. The morning of Tuesday, May 5th, City staff and administrators exchanged emails in reference to an uprising of unhappy utility customers on social media and the expected flood of calls and emails questioning the billing.

By 8:50am, Sweeney had met with Salminen and emailed city staff a draft statement explaining the errors from the February billing and the confusing corrections on the April billing. The statement was also contrite about failing to communicate all this sooner.

But the bigger mistake was not including an explanation in the bills of this adjustment. That is on us, the City, and we apologize.Statement from City of Ferndale regarding utility billing errors (May 5, 2020)

According to email exchanges between the mayor and city administrator, they were made aware of the billing errors but understood only a few customers would be impacted. As a result, they agreed to not to communicate the issue with all customers, instead opting for staff to respond individually to the few customer inquiries that could result.

About 2,500 of the 5,000+ utility customers were impacted according to Sweeney in an email to city staff.

During the Finance & Administration Council Committee meeting yesterday, Wednesday, May 27th, Councilmember Herb Porter asked Director Salminen if she had any concerns with the upcoming June 30th billing and if the software issues have been “squared away.” Salminen, in her detailed response, concluded, “I feel pretty comfortable. I think it’s all been taken care of. Yeah, we are good to go.”

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