Please start by telling us a bit about your career with the company.
I have been with the City of San Marcos for 8½ years, having served 5½ years as a metering supervisor. Three years ago I was appointed Key Accounts Manager; I take care of industrial customers that have the specialized metering we offer. We buy electricity from Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) and they help us co-ordinate the processes.
All customers who have 500 kW demand or greater have specialized Alpha meters and phone lines and modems, and readings are downloaded daily. Fifteen of those customers are the key accounts. I talk to them weekly, and even hand-deliver their bills.
The specialized billing customers whom I take care of include a chain of convenience stores. Here we have managed to consolidate their usage into one account, where in the past we had 30 accounts for all the stores.
We now do the same for the schools and university campuses. There were several hundred accounts for the university, and we set up specialized meters which are read by hand monthly. Reading is done on the same day each month, which allows us to do comparisons with usage over previous months. This helps them to run only one invoice a month.
I coordinate these programs. I also do a lot of the work with LCRA, for example contract negotiation and green energy programs. As much as 9% of the power used now comes from green energy sources, up from 1% in six years.
How did you become involved in the utility industry?
I have a degree in civil engineering from Texas A&M university, with a speciality in water resources. My first job out of college was an electricity/water combination, but I worked more on electricity and have stayed with it.
Please give us a brief history and current overview of your utility.
LCRA started providing power in 1936 and the city office system in LCRA began in 1986. The city of San Marcos has been operating for 20 years as a municipality, over a dense 17 square mile service territory. We are landlocked by electric cooperatives on all sides, so we can never grow our territory, but we have increased the number of customers. This growth rate has been between 3 - 5% in the last few years.
We have a total of 18,500 customers, with about 15,000 being residential. There are about 25,000 students on the College campus, with a lot of them being transitory customers, but the non-payment is not as bad as we expected! When it does occur we disconnect manually.
We offer electricity and water service, and we read both sets of meters. The maintenance, installation and repairs are all done by the water department. We simply read the meters, download the information and pass it onto the water department.
How has deregulation impacted your utility and your customers?
There has been no impact, because we have not opted in. But in the larger cities it is a pretty touchy topic.
What are some of the key challenges your utility faces?
We don’t do automatic reading. At the beginning of each semester, when students are moving in and out, we still have to send out crews to do a physical reading. This is always a rush period of about a month.
We have one full-time meter reader, and at the beginning of the semester we bring an additional 5-6 people on board. These are our own staff – they just add the extra work into their current jobs and plan as necessary.
We are challenged by the weather – it’s been a really hot summer. We do suspend disconnection during the heat, but the problem is when the bills resume, customers fall behind and it’s harder for them to catch up.
The demographics of the city show that there are many college students and a substantial amount of low income families. Most of the non-payers are habitual. It costs $20 to reconnect to electricity and water. This cost does go up if there is a reconnection after hours, but this usually only happens in an emergency.
Our residential meters are electromechanical, from GE, but when our current contract expires we will be changing to AMR. Our commercial meters are both electromechanical and solid state.
What procedures do you follow when doing upgrades/replacements?
We upgrade on an as-needed basis. Every month we do a proofing of the meter reading – our staff look at every account and check consumption. If something looks unusual we ask a technician to check it out and get it replaced if necessary.
About four years ago we had a program to change all 15 Amp meters. We changed 350 and replaced them with newer and more efficient meters, but the interesting thing was that the old ones were actually still 100% effective. We have archived them for possible use in the future.
Do you outsource any business processes or operations?
We outsource the printing of the bills, and the engineering is outsourced to LCRA; they have an engineering service and we take advantage of it.
Please give us a short overview of your billing operations and some of your customer management/service initiatives.
Customers are billed monthly. We offer online and IVR services – online billing was rolled out in 2005, and every month more and more people are using it. We also offer a bank draft from their accounts, and we still offer the standard ‘walk up to the windows and pay’ service that the traditional customers use.
Where do you see metering and billing operations going at your utility in the future?
We are definitely going to start our AMR program, which on the billing side will cut the time between reading and collecting the revenue. We are hoping to have bills done in just a few working days. There is no immediate threat to jobs, as the process will take several years.
What (if any) R&D activities are being undertaken by your utility?
We aren’t doing anything right now, other than the project of consolidating billing accounts, thereby improving customer service. Changing the billing cycles involved countless meetings and also an educational perspective for staff. The payment due dates were changed, which affected the maintenance departments, management and finance and accounts payable. They had to change their methodology, and this was about a 3-month process.
Thank you for your input.