by James A. Bacon
Poor Petersburg. The economically depressed Southside city of 32,000 serves as a vivid warning of just about everything that can go wrong for a local government in Virginia. Not only is the city running a massive General Fund budget deficit, it is falling millions of dollars behind in the collection of revenues for its water system.
The heart of the problem is a botched rollout of a meter-reading system that was pitched as a low-risk way for the city to overhaul its aging infrastructure without a tax increase. The city contracted with systems-controls giant Johnson Controls to install meters that would transmit usage figures electronically, obviating the need to send employees door to door to collect the numbers. Supposedly, the overhaul would pay for itself through more accurate readings and personnel reductions.
But something went wrong. First, the $3.9 million project experienced overruns of $1.4 million, bringing the final cost to $5.3 million. Second, it didn’t work properly. A year and a half later, surely enough time to work out the kinks, some people are reporting that they haven’t received water bills for months, while others say they have been billed too often, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars.
City officials blame the vendor, Johnson Controls. Yesterday City Council voted to hire an outside attorney to pursue litigation against the company to seek remedy, and has asked for assistance from the Virginia State Police.
While it is possible that Johnson Controls bungled the installation of the meters (Full disclosure: I own 400 shares of Johnson Controls stock), the City of Petersburg’s track record and evidence in the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s reporting of the story suggest that the city itself might have contributed to the problem.
First, the article mentions that more than a fifth of the cost overrun came from a $300,000 change order the year after the contract signed. No mention of whether there might have been other change orders.
Second, the contract was negotiated by then-City Manager William E. Johnson III, under whose watch the city’s General Fund plunged into such chaos that City Council fired him. If his oversight of city books was dismal, the same might well have been true for his oversight of the contract.
Third, it’s not clear from published accounts that the billing problem can even be traced to the meters. Meters report water usage; they do not send out billing statements. Perhaps the billing problem arose from the integration of the meters with the billing process. If so, responsibility gets murky. A successful launch of the system would have required collaboration between Johnson Controls and the city administration.
Fourth, Mayor W. Howard Myers admitted that he and other council members were unaware that the project had experienced cost overruns, or that city administrators had approved Johnson Controls’ work months after the system went live and residents had began complaining about faulty billing. This is the same mayor who declared, after being informed that the city had closed the year with a 20% deficit, “I had no idea. I’m like, wow, where is this coming from?” This is not a mayor who is on top of things, and if he blames the vendor for the mayhem, there is no reason to take his appraisal very seriously.
Fifth, in February, Myers hired Paul Goldman, law partner of former state Del. Joseph Morrissey, to investigate the matter at the rate of $330 per hour. But the city terminated the contract before Goldman could complete his job — more money down the drain. (I would conjecture that Goldman couldn’t finish the job because he found the matter to be an indecipherable morass that would take far more time than anyone had initially imagined.)
The business of government is complicated — and getting ever more so. I admire the everyday citizens who dedicate their time to running for office, helping constituents and overseeing government. They don’t get paid enough for what they do. But many of them, especially in smaller jurisdictions, are ill equipped to master the complexities of the job. Frankly, it’s a wonder we don’t see more fiascos like Petersburg’s.