By Andrea Kelley
WESTMINSTER – Westminster City Council finally received a report on the city’s Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system at its meeting on Tuesday, but there are still some unanswered questions.
McKinley, Cooper and Co.’s report, which is not an audit, has been characterized as an “independent accountant’s report on the application of agreed procedures” for AMI income and expenditure. He revealed that AMI’s expenses were not tracked in the general ledger as of 2018.
City Administrator Kevin Bronson said the report was “limited in scope” due to some missing data.
“Not all income and expenses have been tracked separately over the years in our accounting software,” he told the council. “It’s nobody’s fault. There were only a certain number of staff here over the years. You haven’t had anyone who was here when they were placed in a decision-making role who is here now, and because it hasn’t been tracked like that, we don’t have the ability to do what I would call a full system audit.”
According to the report, the AMI system cost $2,150,843 from its inception in 2015 until February 2022.
Revenue from the $7 fee collected on each meter was $1,963,638 during the same period, leaving a deficit of $187,205.
“We now have the perception from the public that we’re supposed to give this reimbursement based on what they assumed the cost is going to be, and $7 a month was going to cover it for five years,” Mayor Brian Ramey said. “What we have now found out is that it didn’t cover it. So we have the public perception — the facts don’t matter, it’s the perception. And that’s what we’re trying to do now, is to clear the perception.
The refund Ramey mentioned refers to the nearly $1 million the city has raised beyond the original $1 million bond amount.
The council that voted to implement the AMI system and accompanying fees informally promised to reduce the fees to $2 per month after five years. In 2020, the council elected to retain fees to staff additional police officers and fund water projects.
At the January council meeting, several residents expressed concerns about overcharges and suggested refunding customers for AMI fees charged after June 2020.
Bronson then recommended auditing the AMI system to see if the city had overcharged and by how much.
Make sense of numbers
The city collected $923,053 of the $1,040,585 bail and interest amount, according to the report.
Fees were supposed to drop to $2 in July 2020, meaning each account was overcharged by around $100 between then and the end of February.
So how is it possible that customers were overcharged, while the system is still operating in deficit?
The original terms of the bonds stated that the proceeds were to be used “to offset debt service…and other operating expenses of the AMI system.” The list of operating expenses included “operating, maintaining and repairing the system…administrative expenses, salaries, wages, benefits,” as well as the cost of materials and invoicing.
The report shows the city paid five salaries with AMI funds — two meter readers, two customer service representatives and an electrical supervisor — which totaled nearly $629,000.
In fiscal years 2016 and 2017, other systems expenses totaled just over $1.2 million.
In 2018, staff stopped tracking AMI expenses in the general ledger.
“No one here knows why. I don’t know why, there’s no documentation explaining why,” said Bronson, who joined City in November 2020. “That’s what the listeners would have wanted to see. … That’s what I would have liked to see. I do not have it.
To complicate matters further, South Carolina’s general records retention schedule allows municipalities to destroy bills and receipts after three years, so staff have no record of 2018 expenses.
For spending from 2019 to 2022, staff searched the general ledger for specific vendors, then asked companies for copies of invoices.
“If they charged us $1,520, they sent it over and said, ‘Here it is,’ but what I don’t have on this side is something where we received it, somebody someone coded it, someone signed it,” Bronson said. “I don’t have that level of documentation on my end.”
Bronson said he was more confident in the revenue side of the report.
“It was coded as AMI, and it was still separate,” he said. “I’m very confident that what we’re saying is that the revenue collected is what we collected. We didn’t collect more, we didn’t collect less, because of how we track that on the utility bill collection system. So that’s pretty solid data.
However, the audited budgets from 2017 to 2020 reflect different revenue amounts than the report, which puzzled Bronson.
“It really should have matched,” he said, flipping through the budgets, “but I can’t explain why. I hate to say this, but I did not prepare this budget. I don’t know what they found. So if you look at everything I do now, it should come back to (report). »
Editor’s Note: Further discussion of Tuesday’s meeting will be included in the weekend edition of the Journal.
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