City staff and utility customers have been grappling with myriad issues since Independence rolled out its new utility billing system six weeks ago, replacing an antiquated system the city used for 34 years.
Scroll through some specific Facebook pages and it doesn't take long to customer complaints about not yet receiving bills, concerns about late fees, frustrations about wait times on the phone and exasperation about the spike in their bills, with some claims of a bill doubling from previous month.
City staff members are trying to alleviate those worries, Assistant City Manager Lauren Palmer said, and account representatives with CIS (Infinity with Allied Utility Systems, the vendor the city contracted with for the new billing system) are working “around the clock, nights and weekends” to work out glitches.
“We are making improvements,” she said in a recent update to the City Council.
First, since the new system went live May 22, the delay in receiving bills can be traced to accuracy, Palmer said.
“We had about a 12-day delay in billing, wanting to verify that bills we were pushing out were accurate,” she said.
“We had issues related to importing data from older system. It was decades old, and with that much data, it's impossible to have a totally clean conversion.”
At this point, all customers should have received at least one bill, and about one-third of the city's 55,000-plus utility customers have received their second bill with the new system, Palmer said. If not, chances are there was a customer error such as an incorrect or partial address entered, perhaps a missing apartment number.
“We need those people to contact customer service,” she said. “If you don't need an urgent answer right away, use the email account.”
Tardy bills don't mean late fees, though.
“We are not charging late fees or delinquent fees or doing water shut-offs for bills that are late under the new billing cycle,” Palmer said.
If a customer has a bill marked delinquent, they incurred that delinquency before the changeover, she said. Those who simply received their bill late do not have to worry about a late payment.
Wait times on the phone hopefully are getting better, Palmer said, but “If don't need urgent answer right away, use the email account (firstname.lastname@example.org).”
As for higher bills, Palmer noted the abnormally warm May led to 24 percent more electric usage than the same month last year. Second, May through September is the peak pricing season due to higher demand – a price structure that's been in place for years. For residential customers that means the price per kilowatt-hour remains the same after the first 100 kWH instead of the gradual decline that continues after 300 kWH during off-peak months.
“If customers are getting that bill for May or June and comparing it to what they had in March or April, it's likely because that new pricing has kicked in,” Palmer said.
The adjusted fuel charge and payment in lieu of taxes are not new with utility billing, but with the new bills, customers now see them on the statement, Palmer said. A sample of the bill can be viewed on the city's website.
“We're trying to be more transparent, and it's working because people are noticing and we're getting questions,” Palmer said. “It's just the information is being displayed in a little different format.”
Council Member Curt Dougherty suggested that, with the waiting room at the Utilities Center sometimes full of people with customer service concerns, a staff member could issue numbers to customers to help alleviate possible “who's next” problems – particularly when customers already might be upset about having to visit the Utilities Center with questions.
“It's little disputes like this that could really get out of hand and get bad,” he said.
Council Member Tom Van Camp said he's had some constituents feel no more informed than before they called customer service with questions.
“They didn't even know there was a new billing system; they thought it was just their bill,” he said. “I don't think we've knocked down the information and condensed it to what we're doing.”
“Our goal is customer service, and this has been a challenge, no question about it,” Mayor Eileen Weir said. “I think we did have some difficulty in communicating the proper information.”
“It's not just our customer service representatives,” she said. “It's the mayor, it's the city manager's office, it's the City Council's office and I'm sure any button that anybody can push to get a live human being.”
Weir said that while many employees are cross-trained, and she doesn't expect people to be experts on every topic, she hopes all staff members are answer the basic questions customers might have regarding utility bills.
The mayor new billing system will prove helpful for the city.
“I know it's been taxing on every one of our staff people, hopefully we are turning the corner and on our way to smooth sailing with this new system, which really is a great, great improvement over our old system.”