Independence's convenience fee charges for online bill payments made with credit/debit cards or eChecks will be delayed until Jan. 1, 2019.
The City Council last week had approved the $4.95 per transaction fee for utility bills as part of the new fee schedule taking effect in July. Monday, it unanimously voted to delay the fees for six months. For non-utility bills such as business licenses, permits or court payments, the fees will be 2.95 percent per transaction for credit/debit card payments and $0.50 for eCheck payments.
The convenience fee, which has been paid by the city, caused much social media consternation after last week's vote, and Mayor Eileen Weir said she regretted not being more clear about the reason for the fee.
In addition, as the city wades through issues related to the new utility billing system, including delays in customers receiving bills, staff would be too swamped to help customers on both ends.
“I still believe citizens should not be asked to subsidize their neighbor's use of convenience,” she said, “and our staff is simply not available (to help).”
The city says about 40 percent of its 56,000 rate payers normally pay utility bills via cards or eChecks. City Manager Zach Walker said the $4.95 fee represents the average of the fees charged by credit card companies. By state law, the city cannot profit on the fees.
“This solely offsets that cost,” he said.
The convenience fee will not apply to mail-in payments or any form of walk-in payment, and utility customers who have signed up for the automated bank draft payments will not be charged.
Weir said the six-month delay could perhaps give some citizens time to adjust their utility payment habits, which could offset some of the city's cost during that time period. Councilmember Scott Roberson had initially leaned against the delay because the city would still be eating some cost.
“Unfortunately (the new utility billing system) has accentuated the confusion,” he said. “But I think we will have to swallow the bitter pill now.”
Councilmember Curt Dougherty said that in the end there is “no such thing as no fee” for customers, and it's just the cost of doing business.
“We need to make sure we make it as low as possible,” he added.
Local attorney David Whipple said that, in an increasingly computerized world, the convenience fee charges make it seem the city is “fighting backwards against the stream” and was not good customer service. Whipple said he's eaten the card fees at his law practice because he knows many customers pay almost everything that way and he considers it a worthy cost.
“This thing really blindsided a lot of people,” he said, “like it was snuck in.”
Councilmember Karen DeLuccie said the convenience fees likely “caught a lot of people unaware” because they were part of the consent agenda that doesn't receive multiple readings for the council. She also noted some inconsistencies, such as the fact a customer could pay by credit card in person at the Utilities Center and not be charged, but would be charged when using a credit card online or on the automated call system.
Walker said he was confident the city's department leaders would be able to find some savings over the coming budget year to offset the six-month cost.