Credit: Needham Observer

The town’s nearly four-year effort to upgrade its municipal billing and payment systems has not been a smooth ride. This became evident in recent months as the town delayed and staggered issuing water and sewer bills to allow time to recover from a significant computer failure that occurred in mid-September 2023.

The computer that failed contained data needed to prepare both the town’s property tax bills and its water and sewer bills. “The failure came about because of an overheating problem and the computer died,” Deputy Town Manager Dave Davison explained to the Select Board last month. 

The property tax information had recently been backed up, but the water and sewer information had not, meaning the town had to recreate the data before accurate water and sewer bills could be produced and then mailed.

“They did a lot of work and a lot of proofing,” Davison said of town staff who worked with the the software vendors on the data retrieval. “That was why the number of months went by. We couldn’t bill. We didn’t have the ability to bill. We had to make sure that what was going out was correct.”

Consequently, water and sewer bills scheduled to be mailed in October were not mailed until late February. The November/December bills were not mailed until early March. The last of the bills went out before June 30.

Local social media pages indicate the billing rollout was a source of confusion and frustration for some residents. Davison acknowledged that some of the reconstituted bills contained errors. He said staff has estimated that, of the more than 10,000 town accounts, the number of accounts with issues is fewer than 220, or 2.2%.

In a Feb. 20 message, the town vouched for the accuracy of the bills and claimed, “The system used to measure consumption for water and sewer continues to operate accurately and without any issues. This means that the consumption volume residents will see on their bills is the measured consumption for the associated time period, as though the bills were going out regularly.”

Not the first problem

The computer event was the worst calamity but certainly not the only hurdle the billing and payment upgrade effort has faced since it was funded at Town Meeting in October 2020. 

In making the case for the $1,075,000 allocation, proponents from both the Select Board and Finance Committee emphasized how the town’s billing and payments infrastructure was “beyond obsolete.”

In fact, the town had learned its systems had a latent Y2K problem and needed a patch so it could recognize the year 2020. “When we finally were able to secure funding we were in COVID time,” Davison said. “The whole procurement process was longer because of COVID and all the restrictions on being able to meet with the different providers and make a selection.”

The request for proposals was not issued until July 2021, and it took another whole year before a contract was executed with Quality Data Services in June 2022. A second vendor, Neptune Technology Group, provides the meter reading service for the QDS system.

A cascade of staffing shortages exacerbated the challenges of procuring goods and services during COVID. “We had a sea change in staffing, and particularly staffing that was directly involved in this project being successful,” Davison said. “We had the loss of the key people in our IT department.”

This problem was compounded by turnover in the treasurer’s office. “The entire department except for one individual all left within a short 18-month period, including the top person,” he said.

The contract was not limited to just the water and sewer billing, and Davison pointed out that other billing services have been upgraded. The motor vehicle excise, property taxes and general receivable billing applications were completed prior to the September server crash.

The need for change

Well before the water and sewer billing snafu, the town recognized it had numerous IT vulnerabilities and engaged an outside consultant to consider consolidating the separate IT staffs of the town and the school department.

“Actually one of the many considerations when the town just recently voted to do the consolidation was to have better redundancy for our IT operations,” Davison said.

He was referring to May Town Meeting’s vote to follow the consultants’ recommendation to restructure the town’s IT staffing by combining town and school IT staff and having it operate under the direction of the school department.

That integration process has begun.

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