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WSSC Water commissioner resigns amid allegations of conflict of interest in picking billing system

Chris Lawson defends WSSC Water's "Project Cornerstone" billing system. Managers tell WUSA9 about system flaws resulting in unexplained large customer bills.

LAUREL, Md. — Imagine getting a water bill for thousands of dollars. Then, imagine trying to get someone from the water company on the line for some answers, only to be on hold for hours. That’s what viewers in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties tell WUSA9 they’ve been dealing with for years and claim is ongoing in both emails and social media posts.

The utility acknowledges past problems with call answer rate and wait time, blaming the COVID pandemic, and adding it had been improving consistently since March 2022. 

You could call Suzanne Sutton particularly water conscious. She recycles much of the water she uses in her Derwood, Maryland, home and even showers at her gym. When she got her WSSC Water bill in December 2020 after a full year of not getting her usual quarterly bill -- which was typically less than $100 -- she was shocked.

"I thought it was really going to be low," Sutton said. "It was close to $3,000."

Over the phone, WSSC Water blamed the problem on a running toilet and says Sutton hasn't made a payment since 2019. In a voice recording released by WSSC to WUSA9, Sutton said she had a toilet leak and a plumber fixed it; however, Sutton told WUSA9 that while the plumber repaired a leak, he told her he found no major problem. Sutton also told WUSA9 she hasn't paid her bill because she doesn't believe she's at fault.

Several other Maryland customers reached out to WUSA9 with similarly high unexpected water bills, totaling several hundred dollars more than expected. More have taken to social media, including a NextDoor thread with more than a100 comments from WSSC customers alleging billing problems for several years to the present day. Customers WUSA9 spoke with said the wait on the phone to get answers from WSSC Water was infuriating.

“Most people who would call up and spend an afternoon with WSSC are not lying," remarked Sutton.

Credit: Becca Knier
Suzanne Sutton recycling water at her Derwood, Maryland home.

WUSA9 collected exclusive interviews with two WSSC Water insiders who explain the possible causes for the high bills and poor customer service. Both agreed to speak to WUSA9 with their faces hidden and voices altered to avoid harm to their careers.

“The major problem with customer service is that we bought a system that was brand new to the industry, across North America," one manager said. "And so the ability to find qualified staff to actually make payment arrangements or do any type of billing is been very tough. So we're dependent on third-party consultants to help us with this task. And as you might be aware, we're moving away from third-party consultants. So bills, phone calls are not being answered. Bill modifications are not being made. It's a lot of lack of knowledge within WSSC on how we use the new billing system." 

RELATED: 92,000 Maryland customers are behind on their water bill, shutoffs resume soon

Another WSSC Water manager told WUSA9 that payment plans have several issues. 

"One, when we initially started resumption of turn-off services, we just didn't have staff, the technology available to assist the customer," the manager said. "When they called in for payment plans, we had long hours of wait time for customers. Additionally, the system itself was not set up to establish payment plans, because we are a quarterly bill system and the payment plans are monthly. So the customers are confused about what it is they need to pay. And additionally, you know, we've asked the customers to call us, email us as well as go online and request payment plans. But unfortunately, we just haven't had the staff to address the customer needs and payment plans. So they run the risk of their services being turned off, although they may have called or sent an email requesting a payment plan.”

Both managers said WSSC Water’s billing system, internally labeled “Project Cornerstone,” is a "failure."

"I think it starts with the billing system itself," the second manager said. "We spent again, over $100 million on a billing system that doesn't service the customer. We've talked to other organizations and they have spent a fraction of those costs, and have all the things that can assist the customer without calling into customer service."

According to WSSC Water, Project Cornerstone was a computer system activated in 2019 to allow it to “implement a new rate structure and a redesigned bill.”

RELATED: WSSC Water is owed $58.4 million from customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties

“Project Cornerstone is a billing system that was purchased by WSSC in the former leadership to bring in some more accurate billing," the first manager explained. "There was a situation where customers were complaining that their bills were not accurate. So, WSSC had an old mainframe system. So, three, four years ago, they decided to purchase a new, more high-tech system. There was really no competition for it. It was something that wasn't even used in North America. I think our general manager wanted to be cutting edge and didn't do a lot of research. And unfortunately for us, cutting-edge new technology, no one in the industry to support it. There's a lack of resources. So, therefore, it's very hard to maintain talent and get talent to actually run the billing system. So we're still we're actually in a worse situation than we were when we were on the mainframe system.”

Credit: Becca Knier
A WSSC Water employee installs a replacement meter

Going back to call wait times, WSSC Water spokesperson Lyn Riggins wrote: “We pride ourselves on delivering exceptional customer service, but we have clearly missed the mark when it comes to our call wait times. To be completely transparent, we have never had that many delinquent customer accounts at one time, which was driving the extremely high call volumes. We know COVID-19 is responsible for the economic uncertainty many of our customers face.”

Riggins provided this chart to WUSA9, showing the utility's call answer rate and wait time had been improving consistently since March 2022:

Credit: WSSC Water

By listening to the apologies from top-level managers to the board in meetings over the course of the year, it's clear WSSC Water is aware of their past customer service problem. 

"I do want to start with an apology," said WSSC Water Deputy General Manager Monica Johnson.

WSSC Water Chief of Staff Crystal Knight-Lee added her own "public apology as customer service director," while WSSC General Manager Carla Reid said she wanted to "once again apologize to our customers."

WUSA9 asked WSSC Water to have any one of these top managers sit down and explain what their own fellow managers said about flaws in their system. Multiple requests were denied.

WSSC Water added that it is willing to work with customers to reduce their bills, sometimes as much as 50%.

Credit: Becca Knier
Suzanne Sutton's home water faucet

Meanwhile, Commissioner Chris Lawson announced he was leaving the company amid accusations of a conflict of interest when choosing the Cornerstone billing system.
Late Tuesday night, Lawson wrote a letter of immediate resignation obtained by WUSA9. It reads in part: 

"It is true that I have a client who participates in the Cornerstone contract. When the original contract was approved, there were no vendors named at that time under the Basic Ordering Agreement. It was understood that the vendors would be selected from an approved list of approximately 27 companies, chosen by the IT department evaluation of offerors. At the point in which management requested more revenue to continue with the development of Cornerstone, it was an honest mistake not to recognize that at that point, the client was listed. I certainly didn't do so because I was going to get something in return. Last, I was informed today that a Commissioner has lodged a complaint with the State Ethics Board specifically against me. It made mention of other vendors past and present that are clients of concern. That is clearly a lie. I'm sure that if the Commissioner honestly thought that he/she would have quickly made mention of client names. Another unnecessary evil. But at least with the Ethics Board I will have an honest chance to set the record straight. Thank you again for the opportunity to serve. I wish you and the staff all the best." 

Lawson declined to speak to WUSA9.

"When we talk about Cornerstone we have to talk about the relationships at WSSC," said one of the managers speaking anonymously. "Currently, we've got an active commissioner who is doing business with one of the vendors from Cornerstone and who did not disclose that information who's been approving contracts for that particular vendor. And we're aware of some of these vendors sitting on the boards of these different organizations that belong not only to the commissioner but as well as other employees who may have other businesses or spouses who may have other businesses that these particular vendors sit on the boards of these different employees of WSSC Water."

Credit: WSSC Water
WSSC Water Commissioner Chris Lawson resigned June 7, 2022

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