Still trying to address citizen concerns and complaints about the city's utility billing system and high bills, the city of Independence has hired a firm to conduct an external audit.

City Management Analyst Jordan Ellena, who had conducted an independent internal audit at the request of the City Council beginning July 20, recommended the external audit. It will be conducted by BHMG Engineers, which is based in Arnold, Missouri.

BHMG estimates its audit will take about a month and cost $15,000. Among the things they will look at:

• Billing system conversion.

• Billing calculation validations.

• Rate set-up.

• Fuel factor calculations.

• Kilowatt sales increases due to weather.

• Bill cycles.

• Mail delivery.

• Meter readings.

• Level pay.

• Net metering.

After the internal audit began, city staff said it had found some problems with the externally created billing system, which replaced a 34-year-old in-house system, but had not found errors in calculating bill totals – the main source of complaints.

In his memo to the City Council, Ellena also said he not found errors in calculations. He recommended the external audit “in light of the narrow time frame, the complexity of the data that needs to be studied, and the desire to adequately address our customers' concerns.”

Concerns that he did find included the timing of the new billing system – it was rolled out in May, the first month of peak pricing – insufficient training for the impacted staff due to technology limitations in the testing environment and the need for external professional with experience in complex rate structures because of Independence's myriad utility rate classes.

It didn’t help that the warmer-the-usual May that resulted in 24 percent more energy usage than in May 2017.

Many customers have experienced delays in receiving bills, others have been confused by the bill's new look – which lists some charges that hadn't been spelled out previously – and a large number have expressed sticker shock about the spikes on their bills. Some have claimed bills doubling from a previous month or even greater.

Customer service representatives have been swamped many times with complaints and questions, leading to some long wait times in person or on the phone and further customer frustration.

“The City Council remains committed to resolving the issues our utility customers are experiencing and dedicating whatever resources necessary to provide citizens with clear factual answers,” Mayor Eileen Weir said in a statement.

City Manager Zach Walker added there is no question the new utility billing system has proved problematic.

“Our frontline staff have continued to provide the best possible customer service in a challenging environment,” Walker said in a statement. “The relationship with our customers is very important, and we feel this external audit is an important step to maintain that relationship.”