The Birmingham Water Works announced a new billing initiative on Tuesday, which it claims will address the utility's billing issues that customers experienced last year.

Water Works general manager Michael Johnson announced the new #BillBetter campaign at a press conference on Wednesday after thousands of customers reportedly didn't receive bills for months in 2022, only to receive much larger or multiple bills all at once.

The bills were not based on accurate meter readings but were estimations using previous months' usage. Birmingham Water Works blamed the issues on insufficient meter readers and inadequate staffing.

Water Works public relations manager Rick Jackson said last year that the utility estimated water bills temporarily due to staffing shortages in the meter reading and billing departments. 

Despite backlash from the public, the Birmingham Water Works Board (BWW) voted in November to raise rates by 3.9% for the second year in a row.

The billing issues have even spurred one state lawmaker to introduce a bill in the Alabama House of Representatives to overhaul the current BWWB members and amend their qualifications. However, the bill has not been touched since April 12. The Birmingham City Council passed a resolution in April to express its disapproval of the bill.

Johnson said that less than 1% of Water Works customers currently receive inaccurate bills, and when they do, it is typically due to factors outside the utility's control, such as a meter being covered or someone having a dog in their yard. 

The Water Works is increasing the number of billing department agents. Johnson promised it would better communicate with customers on reporting issues, payments and opportunities for financial assistance.

He also confirmed that the utility would implement automatic meter readers in the future. 

The Water Works initially started looking into automated meter readers after the billing issues in 2020. It reached an agreement with the Jefferson County Commission in April to continue to act as the county's billing agent for sewer service changes while representatives from the Jefferson County Commission work with the Water Works to examine the costs and benefits of implementing the automatic readers. The new agreement will go into effect at the beginning of next year.

"There's no question that we want to remove the manual process of reading meters from our billing processes," Johnson said. "Automated meter reading will allow us to do that."

Currently, the utility is in the process of working with a consultant about automatic meter implementation. It must still develop a plan, which Johnson said he hopes to begin implementing in the next 12 to 18 months. 

Other priorities of the initiative include educating customers on how to prevent leaks, calculate bills and use electronic payment options. 

Earlier this year, the utility hired CBG Strategies, which it pays to assist with "community engagement." However, CBG is not the only public relations service paid for by the Water Works. It still has in-house public relations professionals and another outsourced firm, o2 Ideas, that it uses for "internal relations."

In unison with its November rate hike, the BWWB approved two new budgets for fiscal year FY 2023, which amount to a combined total of $197,612,101. 

Johnson said the utility added additional funds to its budget and invested approximately $96,000 into the #BillBetter campaign, but that number does not include payments to either public relations firm. 

"Part of our goal is to have outreach to our community, and they provide that in a lot of ways to us," he explained. 

The Water Works, which serves customers in five counties in the Birmingham metro area, released a customer survey to receive feedback from customers. The survey is accessible here.

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