City's Online Utility Bill Payment System Goes in the Crapper. I Blame Me.

This whole thing is my fault. I blame only myself, not so much because I really believe it's entirely my fault, but because I know trying to blame anybody else will not do me any good. I just need to go get my water bill paid.

Yesterday City Council members received a memo from the city manager's office warning them that The Dallas Morning News was going to make a big mountain out of a molehill in today's newspaper. The subject line in the memo was "Dallas Morning News article." Like that's what they needed to worry about. The article.

The article did run today, reporting that the city's online utility billing service is dead already. It's two months old. But the memo to council said not to worry. "One of the 23 servers that host the city's billing system failed," the memo said.

Get it? Only one in 23 servers. Isn't that a pretty good average? One in 23? No, actually it's not. It's sort of like saying only one of 23 vital organs in your body shut down while you were asleep last night. Your heart.

The memo went on to say, "That particular server housed only the online billing application." Oh, just that. Yeah. That's the one server that hosts the only thing I happen to care about -- paying my water bill online. And foolish, foolish me. I thought I could.

I pay all kinds of other bills online with electronic funds transfers. A month ago when I was seated at my computer paying bills, I noticed that my water bill finally offered online payments. A little voice on my left shoulder whispered in my ear, "Hey! See if you can do it!"

Immediately the nasty voice on my right shoulder said, "Are you kidding me? Just because you can pay your electric bill and your gas bill and your cable bill and your canoe paddling accessories bill online, do you really think you can trust a city-operated bill-pay service? Why not just roll your money into spitballs and go downtown and throw it at City Hall?"

You may not have been keeping track. The new digital billing system for city utilities (trash and water) was first proposed to the council in 2006 at a total cost of $13.8 million, to be up and running in September 2008.

In 2008 the city manager's staff went back to the council and said they needed another $9.5 million to get the new system online, but it would be up and running pronto. The council said sure.

In 2010 the staff went back to the City Council and said it wasn't up yet but it would be soon if they could please have another $3.2 million to fix it. The council said yup.

In 2011 the staff went back to the City Council and said it wasn't up yet, but it would be very soon if they could please -- puh-leeeze pleeze pleeze -- just have another $8.3 million to fix it. The council said, Why not?

In December 2012, residential water bill customer James X. Schutze, a fool, listened to the wrong voice in his head and decided to start paying his water bills online. It worked. One time.

One time. Once. In January 2013, I tried to do it a second time and learned that the new system was already bollixed. Down. Dead. RIP. Of course I started worrying right away about the money I had already sent in by electronic funds transfer and what version of accounting Timbuktu it might have wound up in.

And then the little nasty voice on my right shoulder starts in. "Say, uh, Pal, you got a second for a quick IQ test here? Did you not remember that this was the same operation that was run by the guy at City Hall who was an associate pastor of his church in Fort Worth and hired most of his staff from the church? When you mouse-clicked your money to them, giving them access to your bank routing and account numbers, did you not have a vision of people in choir robes in a room in the basement of City Hall shouting hallelujah every time another digital payment came in?"

I know, I know. That guy is gone. So are the choir robes. But here is what I should have remembered: the fact that they were ever there in the first place. Had I walked into my bank one time and discovered people in choir robes shouting hallelujah for every deposit, I would never have set foot in that bank again. So there's the rub, of course. I can't not set foot in the city, because I live in the city. They know that.

So I blame myself, because I know no one else will be blamed. This is the perfect illustration of how our system of governance really works in Dallas. We have a weak City Council. Weak city mayor. Weak city manager. I call it the weak-weak-weak system. The buck stops nowhere and no one is ever to blame. In fact, what buck?

So, I have another bill to pay. I will go back to the old system. Pack a lunch. Carry a toothbrush. Go downtown. Have my wife videotape me handing over my check -- close-up camera shot to show check -- to the lady behind the counter. It is what it is. Why did I ever believe it could change?

Dallas Water Billing Memo by

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