Some Lumberton commercial utility accounts back billed by city

·5 min read

Jul. 9—LUMBERTON — Some commercial utility customers with the City of Lumberton have received back bills totaling thousands of dollars after a billing error resulted in the accounts being billed an improper amount during the past several months.

The error is the result of a glitch as the city converted its accounts to a new software; it was discovered during a routine audit. While only commercial accounts were affected by this particular error and no residential accounts were impacted, the city is still checking its commercial accounts to see how many were incorrectly billed, City Manager Wayne Horne said. The revenue impact to the city is also not yet known.

"It's several accounts, but we won't know (the revenue impact) until we get everything completed," Horne said. "We haven't identified all of them yet, and some of them on the commercial side have not been billed (with the new software) yet."

Some customers have been notified of the error and how much they will owe in back bills. The city will work with any customer that needs to pay the back bill amount in installments, Horne said.

"Our policy says if we have an error in billing, we can go back and back bill or adjust for (up to) 12 months," Horne said. "That works both ways — if it's over or under, if we catch the error. When we found that we had an error in the billing, when we were checking these program conversions, that's when we generated back bills. It's basically catching up to where it should have been."

As a correction has been made to address the error, all accounts should be billed correctly moving forward, Horne said.

The Robesonian became aware of the issue as it was one of the businesses affected by the error. It was informed in a letter from the city, dated June 29; the letter explained how the billing error occurred.

"During a recent audit, it was discovered that your utility account was improperly structured," the letter, which is signed by city billing clerk Tashaunda McAllister, reads in part. "The audit revealed that the electrical portion was billed without the proper meter multiplier for five months. Some electric meters are manufactured to record usage at a certain percentage and require that a 'multiplier' be applied to that usage in order to obtain the correct billing amount. In the utility industry this is called a 'meter constant.' This meter multiplier error has resulted in a back bill."

The meter multiplier issue occurred during the city's recent software conversion, which took place early this year.

"We just went through a major software conversion here — it included our billing, utilities, finance," Horne said. "All our accounts transferred over and all our programs were transferred over; in that process, on utility billing, on the commercial side, it dropped out one of the indicators, which was a multiplier, which was part of the structure. When it dropped that out, it was still billing, but it was not billing correctly."

The Robesonian's back bill is for several thousand dollars. According to Horne, The Robesonian's average bill amount over the last few months was only about 3% of its typical average bill.

"The one here with the paper, they're not going to be paying any more than they would have normally paid," Horne said. "We'll work out the payment schedule with them; it won't be any more money than what they would normally have paid anyway, it's just a matter of when they paid it, now that we've got the corrected amounts."

The city's typical procedure when billing issues occur that result in back bills is to give the customer the same amount of time to pay the amount due in installments; in this case, that would mean affected customers can pay the amount over five months.

"Procedurally, when we discover an error like that we make the customer aware of it and seek repayment, and almost always provide for a payment plan to make it as easy as possible," City Attorney Holt Moore said.

There have also been instances of the city overbilling, and later reimbursing, customers. While billing errors are rare, they are not unprecedented, Horne said, and some have happened with residential customers.

Because the city has over 9,000 accounts, Horne said, it sometimes takes several months for the city to catch a billing issue like this one.

"Sometimes when a customer gets a bill like that, they call us, and let us know there was an error in the billing; that way we catch it sooner," Horne said. "So it works both ways, with checks and balances and everything."

The city's software conversion is a "major undertaking," Horne said. The city's online billing site for electric utilities and water service was down for about two weeks in January while that department changed from the previous software to the new one.

"Well it's really been an ongoing process over the last, I don't know, six to eight months," Moore said. "It's been done in phases, with different departments, because we're trying our best to get it right with each department. It's a huge undertaking with even one department so we're trying not to do all of them at the same time."