By Frank Lewis
Crystal Weghorst will soon become the new director of the newly-created Department of Utility Account Services for the city of Portsmouth. Currently the department that deals with billing for water services is the Waterworks Office.
“It was painfully obvious that some of our staff didn’t understand how we were billing or what we were billing for,” Portsmouth City Manager Derek K. Allen said. “That’s now Water, that’s Refuse and Trash. In addition we went to monthly billing and I’ve heard people say there’s something wrong because their bills are less than a third and there is a mathematical error in it so we are slightly under-billing and the decision is that we will change that when the new person goes in over there.”
Allen gave high praise to Waterworks department head Sam Sutherland in transitioning from quarterly to monthly billing. He said it took the department five months before they could send out monthly bills.
“There’s a math problem. The bills are wrong,” Allen said. “I would say the bills are wrong in the customer’s favor. We’re not going to go back and try to collect that back. We’re going to fix it and go forward.”
Allen said the office manager, George Howard is retiring at the end of July and this was the time to make a change which he says is to created the new Department of Utility Account Services and put Weghorst, currently in the Engineers Office, in charge, answerable directly to the office of city manager.
“I think it is that important,” Allen said. “They are collecting $11 million of revenue a year. There’s a lot of things that need to be cleaned up over there. There’s a lot of reporting that needs to be done at a better level. Everybody had questions for the person that was running that department and we all had frustrations trying to get the answer. Those are answers that should have been easily reportable. For that reason I think it’s necessary to make this a new department with the department head reporting directly to the city manager.”
“He (Howard) retires on July 31, which is Friday, and Monday, my intent is to be over there,” Allen said. “There’s a lot of issues over there and a lot of issues that are going to have to be resolved and are important enough that I’m going to have to go over and devote some time.”
After being asked by First Ward Councilman Kevin W. Johnson about plans to advertise for the position, Allen gave Council his plan.
“I would like to move Crystal over,” Allen said. “The purpose of this is to hire one person, not two.”
Allen said it will require a two-step process. One is to create a department and create a position and the second step would be the establishment of the wage for the job. Currently the salary range for the position is $37,029 to $40,726. He is recommending the new range be from $37,029 to $47,840 and by transferring Weghorst to that position, the city would only hire one person from outside and that would be a city engineer, with a salary range of $31,800 to $43,755.
Allen said, thanks to Portsmouth voters, the city was recently given an increase in the income tax rate and he did not want to appear to be hiring several people.
Several City Council members supported making the issue of the creation of the new department a Consent Agenda item which would most likely result in the suspension of the three-readings rule because of the immediate need to fill the vacancy in the new department.
Allen said the Sewer Fund is in the red and the city has incurred debt meaning they will have annual payments of $200,000 beginning in 2016.
“The rates have to go up to not only correct the deficit in our fund, pay that debt payment ,” Allen said. “then we have future projects contained in our Administrative Consent Order.”
Allen said the Water Fund is better off than the Wastewater Fund, but while the city has lost some revenue, they have, at the same time, taken some debt off their books this year. He said those rates have to be adjusted also.
He summed up his request this way. “My recommendation is to move forward, move Crystal over. On an interim basis I guess the engineering department would have to directly send their stuff down to me while we advertise and I’ll have to rely on Crystal and some others to give me some assistance. I’m confident that we will be totally successful and we’re going to get that utility billing issue straightened out and we will be able to report to City Council the difference between uncollectible accounts and delinquent accounts – and there is a difference – and right now there is no separation. The intent is to start at ground zero and rebuild that department.”
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.