Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities are debuting their new billing, customer-service and back-office computer system this weekend.
Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities are launching their new billing, customer-service and back-office computer system over the Labor Day weekend — nearly a year late and $34 million over its initial budget.
That means the utilities are switching from their existing system to a complicated, custom-built apparatus that’s supposed to interact with 40 other information-technology applications while processing 5.5 million bills and collecting $1.8 billion each year.
Public-utilities spokesman Andy Ryan compared the launch to a surgical procedure.
“This is like giving someone a heart transplant,” Ryan said in an interview Thursday. “We’re going to start unhooking the old heart and plugging the new heart in.”
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The change has been in the works since 2012, when then-Mayor Mike McGinn and the City Council approved the project. The new system is replacing 15-year-old technology that’s no longer supported by its vendor, officials have said.
Initially, the project’s budget was $66 million and the launch was scheduled for last October. But the new system wasn’t ready in time, so the council last November approved a revised budget of $85 million and the launch was rescheduled for April.
If the system launches this weekend, officials will have met the new deadline they set in March. But their plan includes some “no go” checkpoints. They’ll be able to stop the switch-over and postpone the launch yet again if something is about to go wrong.
“That’s not what we expect at all, but something could come up,” Ryan said.
On Wednesday night, utility staffers backed up the existing system. On Thursday and Friday, they began transferring information into the new system. The plan calls for transferring to continue Saturday and for a test run of bills and reports Saturday night.
Information entry and fine-tuning are scheduled for Sunday and Monday, and the new system is set to go live Tuesday morning, with bills being mailed out to customers.
Customers shouldn’t notice any changes other than new account numbers if the launch goes smoothly, Ryan said. Customers calling for help may encounter longer hold times as staffers become accustomed to using the new system, he said.
If you pay your bills online through your bank, you’ll need to update your account number with the bank. But you’ll have some time — your old account number will continue to work for 130 days.
The nightmare scenario would resemble what Los Angeles experienced when its Department of Water and Power launched a new billing system prematurely in 2013, resulting in late bills, unwarranted shut-off notices and excessive wait times for callers.
Roughly a year later, the department’s customers owed more than $681 million for late bills, up $245 million since the launch, a California State Auditor report said.
That’s why Seattle’s utilities have delayed their launch, at a cost of an additional several million dollars per month, Ryan said. They don’t want to end up like L.A.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important what we learned from L.A. has been in our decision to take longer in rolling this thing out,” the public-utilities spokesman said.
Council members Rob Johnson and Lisa Herbold cited the billing system’s ballooning budget last month in calling for the creation of a special council committee to oversee capital projects.
They also mentioned the new North Seattle police precinct budget, which has grown from $89 million to $149 million, and the new Elliott Bay Seawall budget, which has swelled from $339 million to $410 million.
The committee would likely zero in on projects running at least 10 percent over budget. The council now provides little meaningful oversight of the city’s Capital Improvement Program — the annual document where such projects are listed.
A broken budgeting process that encourages officials to estimate project costs before enough planning work has been done may be to blame for chronic overruns, Seattle City Council Insight blogger Kevin Schofield argued in a post this week.