Two weeks after the city of Independence announced an internal audit of utility bills that have caused much citizen consternation, city staff said it has identified some problems with the new billing system but have not found errors in calculating bill totals – the main source of complaints. The audit is ongoing.
In a release, City Manager Zach Walker said staff tested thousands of utility accounts before the city rolled out the long-planned, externally created billing system in May, replacing a 34-year-old in-house system. With the audit, the city planned to review a representative sample of 56,000 customer bills across the three utilities all customer classes (residential, commercial, industrial).
“This analysis continues. We are taking the time to review large amounts of data as thoroughly as possible to ensure billing accuracy,” Walker said, in part. “We will not rush this process and want our customers to know we hear their concerns.”
Many customers have experienced delays in receiving bills, others have been confused by the bill's new look – which lists some already-included charges that hadn't been spelled out previously – and a large number have expressed sticker shock about the sudden spikes on their bills. Some have claimed bills doubling from a previous month or even greater.
Customer service representatives have been swamped many times with complaints and questions, leading to some long wait times and further angst from utility customers.
City staff has attributed much of the higher bills to an unusually warm May – leading to 24 percent greater power usage that month than May 2017 – and the peak pricing system that takes effect every year during the high-demand months of May through September.
The staff did find two things – a system error caused about 2 percent of customers to possibly not receive a bill at their current address after moving within the city, and some payment processing issues have cropped up with payments from banks via the city website or a customer's online banking bill pay system.
The first system error issue has been fixed, Walker said, and the city's tech services department has been working with banks to resolve the processing issues.
Some payments were not immediately being applied to an account when paid online, and about 170 accounts using auto bank draft were not being sent to the bank to withdraw a payment. Both of those problems have been fixed. Some payments were not posted in a timely manner because the bank didn't recognize the Utility Center's zip code (64057).
The city also noted that a handful of utility bills get returned to the city each month for a number of reasons – address not updated in the system, incomplete or in an unidentified format. Customers are encouraged to let the city if they haven't received a bill to ensure corrections for future mailings
“While we anticipated some hiccups along the way,” Walker said, referring to the transition from an antiquated, in-house billing system to a modern one, “we want to apologize to our 56,000 customers that it was not smoother.”