Blackout ‘fried city billing’

2019-03-05 15:30
Municipal security guards outside AS Chetty building on Monday. Striking finance department staff allege intimidation.

Municipal security guards outside AS Chetty building on Monday. Striking finance department staff allege intimidation. (Ian Carbutt)

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Msunduzi's failure to maintain a back-up battery unit to keep its billing system online during load shedding last month is what led to the huge billing mess up. 

And, the ongoing strike at the City’s billing department means Msunduzi still hasn’t closed its books for February, meaning it is unlikely to be able to accurately and timeously invoice customers for that month.

The Witness has learnt from impeccable sources that bills for January were only sent out last week — nearly a full month late — after staff had to manually sort customers’ data eight times because of bouts of load shedding interrupting bills being processed last month. An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) unit that is supposed to keep the system online in the event of power outages was without batteries and “poorly maintained” by Msunduzi, leading to the system crashing several times.

The latest revelation is sure to cause outrage among residents, who had reported being affected by the controversial disconnection drive last month despite sources claiming Msunduzi had not furnished bills. This also comes as a programme is being put in place to “compensate for all the anomalies” in the billing system, sources said.

Customers’ information on Msunduzi’s books is pulled into tables on the SAP billing system and that system creates a “smart form” which is the bill as the customer receives it. A power outage on February 6, however, meant the process for January’s bills was interrupted. “The process which creates the smart form takes about 48 hours and the outage happened halfway through that,” a source said.

The source said a Witness report last week, which said residents had only received bills reflecting water usage, “made perfect sense” because the system shutting down midway meant most of a customers’ information would not have been captured on the bill.

“It has huge implications, and it requires people to manually clean customers’ data, which takes two to three days,” one insider said.

The process had to be repeated eight times because of further hits of load shedding last month. “The system needs a UPS because it needs a constant power source feeding it. A generator isn’t good enough since it takes a few minutes to kick in,” a source said.

“It is a critical system and has all customers’ information. What would have happened if it crashed completely? These are complex systems which require care. Data would have been corrupted for millions of accounts.”

The source also alleged that staff still could have given customers a printout of their electricity usage and rates if they were unable to provide bills. “But staff are lazy and they are unwilling to learn things,” the source claimed.

Meanwhile, the strike has allegedly slowed down the closing of February’s books for Msunduzi, and bills are said to be incomplete.

“The books were supposed to be closed last week and invoices were to be processed over the weekend. Now because of the strike the receipts at the cash halls weren’t processed on time, so at the very least there’ll be a huge backlog and no one knows whether customers have got bills,” the source said.

The source said the much-maligned SAP system was not to blame, but rather the City’s lack of proper implementation, oversight and accountability.

Msunduzi spokesperson Ntobeko Ngcobo was sent a detailed query but did not respond to it or calls or texts.

City 'wasted money' on problematic SAP System

The City’s SAP financial system is problematic and every month thousands of statements sent to consumers are either incorrect or unbalanced.

This is according to Msunduzi’s disgruntled finance workers who have raised the issue of SAP as one of the reasons they recently went on an unprotected strike.

They said since July 2017 they have faced abuse from consumers who accused them of incompetence as a result of the incorrect statements issued by the SAP system.

“When a consumer queries their statement we try and give them a justification for the amount reflected but more than half the time we are lying through our teeth because we have no idea how that amount came about in the first place,” said one of the financial clerks.

The City started transitioning from the Promis system to SAP in 2016 with a plan to integrate all its key functions, but it was not until 2017 that the billing programme that frustrated ratepayers was implemented and some councillors started questioning its sophistication.

“This municipality is robbing its consumers of thousands of rands by making them pay incorrect amounts every month because they say you must pay first and lodge the grievance after or risk being disconnected,” said one if the cashiers.

Other staff members said they never received more than a few hours of training on how to use the system so they could not tell whether some of the inputs were made correctly.

They said they also did not know how to fix some of the mistakes once they were identified.

“The truth is SAP has never worked properly but the management discouraged us from speaking up every time we tried to point out at the problems it was causing,” said another employee who has worked for Msunduzi for more than 10 years.

He said the version of the programme that the municipality procured was not suitable to the type of financial transactions performed by a municipality of Msunduzi’s size.

His other colleague said Promis was a better system because of its “transparency” where the trail of calculations on consumption and interest charged made sense.

“The money that has gone towards paying for SAP and consultants is what I would describe as wasteful expenditure because this system will never work unless the municipality forks out more cash to pay for a more advanced version of SAP,” she said.

-Nokuthula Ntuli


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