Special Reports

Feed me, computer system insists

Tacoma’s multimillion-dollar computer system is about to cost another $472,500.

Public Utility Board members are scheduled to consider a contract in that amount to TUI Consulting Inc. next week for making fixes and enhancements to the system so it will serve customers faster.

If approved as is expected, the contract will bring TUI’s tab for work on the system to some $31.3 million since mid-2002.

But the new contract, expected to run through the end of this year or into early 2005, “would pay for itself,” public utilities customer service manager Bill Schatz said Friday.

The TUI work should enable customer service workers to get to information into the system faster, handle calls quicker and produce reports more easily, he said.

Since the SAP utility billing system went up a year ago, the utility has added about 24 workers to help handle larger call volumes from customers with questions about their statements.

The extra help is expected to cost about $1 million this year, Schatz said.

The TUI work should enable the utility to eliminate about 18 of those positions next year, saving about $90,000 a month, according to a memo from Schatz and utilities director Mark Crisson.

At that rate, the contract would pay for itself in about five months, Schatz said.

“We think we can have a relatively dramatic impact on call times in a relatively short period of time,” Crisson said.

In the meantime, utilities officials are working on an efficiency audit, additional training and software fixes to improve the system’s operation, Schatz and Crisson said. Those developments eventually will allow further reductions in the customer service work force, Schatz said.

But the utility board will be asked to approve a resolution allowing continued employment of the extra workers who would stay until managers are satisfied with customer service levels.

The extra workers have been crucial during the computer system’s start-up year, Schatz and Crisson said.

Utilities officials said they expected the time it takes to answer calls to increase at the outset because the system requires each worker to put more data into the computer. They also expected some time while workers became comfortable with the system and bugs were ferreted out.

But just about everyone was taken aback earlier this year when phone lines were so jammed and waits were so long that irate customers began calling other parts of the city begging for help.

There were many billing errors, and some utility users complained they wouldn’t get a bill at the usual time and then they’d suddenly get two.

Billing errors and call waiting times have been drastically reduced, Crisson said.

Earlier this year, the utility board awarded TUI a $281,240 contract to rectify problems and make improvements to the budget billing system.

TUI, which was paid more than $28 million for installation and configuration of the computer system, also is working for the city under a year-long $1.7 million “stabilization contract” to correct problems as they arise.

The city’s information technology workers have long lists of problem reports from across the city that they’re working through. And during the summer, SAP sent the equivalent of a computer SWAT team to Tacoma to help the city’s budget office produce crucial numbers and forecasts for the 2005-’06 budget.

Local 120 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the city’s information technology workers, has filed a grievance against the city over the new TUI contract.

The union complains that the city is farming out its members’ work in violation of a labor agreement. The grievance says Local 120 wants the city to cancel the contract with TUI, train its own employees to do the computer work and compensate union members at the overtime rate for any work TUI members do in violation of the labor agreement.

TUI has been the favored contractor for the system work, and the utility board has granted emergency contracts by waiving the formal bidding process.

But Utility Board Chairman Jake Fey says panel members have made it clear they want such work put out for bid in the future.

In the meantime, he said he’s not surprised that more work is needed. But he was surprised by the amount of the latest contract.

“We’re sort of between a rock and a hard spot, because it’s got to have the functionality to do the things we need to do and reduce the frustration of customers,” he said.

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659 kris.sherman@thenewstribune.com What

Tacoma Public Utility Board meeting


6:30 p.m. Wednesday


The auditorium at TPU headquarters, 3628 S. 35th St.


A 7 p.m. public hearing on proposed water rates; contract award for work on the city’s computer system; approval of utilities’ 2005-’06 budget