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updated: 7/16/2014 9:31 AM

Software problem leaves residents in dark on water bills

West Chicago residents upset with late water bills

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  • Some West Chicago residents haven't been billed for water for nearly a year due to a software compatibility issue that has caused city officials to input usage and billing data manually, officials there said.

       Some West Chicago residents haven't been billed for water for nearly a year due to a software compatibility issue that has caused city officials to input usage and billing data manually, officials there said.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Water billing issues have plagued West Chicago, which has not sent bills to some parts of the city in more than a year.

       Water billing issues have plagued West Chicago, which has not sent bills to some parts of the city in more than a year.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

It's been nearly a year since Sandie Robertson received a water bill from West Chicago.

She paid $167 for water usage during that time, but she probably owes somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 more.

The problem is that no one knows for sure what the 38-year resident of the city owes, including those at city hall.

The bigger problem is that she's not alone. It's an issue that has affected the entire city.

"It's scary, and it makes me angry a little bit because I don't know what I'm facing when the bills start coming again," she said. "The poor communication from the city hasn't helped."

West Chicago City Manager Michael Guttman said all the water usage and billing information has been collected, but because of a compatibility issue with the city's billing software and its new water meter reading equipment, bills have to be compiled "manually."

"The heart of the matter is there is a software limitation that does not allow staff to electronically bill for certain periods of time," Guttman said. "The only way around that is to manually bill."

Guttman said the city was caught off guard by the compatibility issue because the same system had worked fine elsewhere.

"These delays were beyond the control of city management," he said.

Even though parts of the city haven't seen a water bill since last August, the city didn't address the issue with property owners until March, when Guttman sent a letter to water customers outlining the problem. The city's conversion from water meters that had to be read manually to equipment that sent data electronically is what sparked the billing snafu.

While the letter suggests customers make "estimated payments" based on past usage, some aldermen aren't even clear how the situation will be rectified.

"There's still no way to figure out what you owe," said Ward 2 Alderman Don Earley. "They'll take your money at city hall if you want to put your money down on a bill."

Guttman said since there have been no rate hikes, using past bills should be pretty indicative of current usage.

Roughly half the city has begun receiving water bills for past usage, Guttman said. Those bills are broken into four-month increments and will arrive about every two months until the billing is caught up, which could take up to another year, Guttman said.

It's unclear how long it will take for all of the city's water customers to begin receiving water bills again.

"This is a labor-intensive project that minimizes costs and minimizes impact on residents," he said. "Time is what we need to fix the problem and accomplish our goal."

Guttman said the city has not paid any overtime or hired any outside consultants to help expedite billing. He added that about 25 percent of the city's water customers have kept up with their bills by making estimated payments.

Meanwhile, the city has been pulling funds from savings to cover revenue shortfalls from the unpaid bills. Guttman said more than $1 million has been transferred since the billing problem started but will be replaced with funds generated when the water billing issue is resolved.

"No capital projects have been delayed," Guttman said. "We're not spending any additional money."

But Robertson suggested the city should put extra resources into resolving the billing issues in order to ease concerns of residents who face uncertain bills.

"What if there's been a leak this entire time?" she asked, saying residents then could face unexpected high charges.

Guttman said residents can access the city's website, www.westchicago.org, to learn how the new meters can detect leaks.

Ward 4 Alderman Al Murphy said he's fielded a number of calls from concerned residents as well.

"Once I explain what is happening to them they understand," he said. "The residents have been satisfied with the answers I've given them."

But Earley isn't quite as convinced that residents will react so calmly once the bills start rolling in.

"I'm going to have to get a get another phone line for water bills," he said. "They're going to scream, and guess who they're going to scream at?"

Got a tip?

Contact Jake at jgriffin@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4602. Follow him at facebook.com/jakegriffin.dailyherald and at twitter.com/DHJakeGriffin.

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