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Independence catching up on utility billing

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

Independence city officials continue to stress patience with ratepayers as the city slowly gets back to normal with utility billing following a ransomware attack late last year and city’s subsequent precautionary measures.

Independence did not send utility bills in December and only started to resume billing in the first full week of January. Customers will see at least a 60-day billing cycle starting on the last day meters were read in 2020. The city has 20 billing cycles in a month, and as of Monday had billed the first 10 cycles, Water Department Director Dan Montgomery told the City Council. 

“By the end of the month we’ll bill cycle 20,” he said. 

City Manager Zach Walker said the city wants every customer to receive a bill based on a read meter for this go-around and has been doubling up on meter readers of late.

“We don’t want to do estimates, because estimates can present future issues down the road,” he said, “so it’s really important that we get those actual reads right now. Customers who have not received (a bill) yet should continue to look. They are trickling out and they are coming, and when they do come that number’s going to be large.”

Montgomery acknowledged that some bills have had or will have up to a 72-day billing cycle, depending on the time between reads. Regardless, the city will continue to work with customers about making payment arrangements and has waived late-payment penalties through Feb. 28, as well as credit card fees until further notice. Through mid-January, the city said it absorbed $750,000 in credit card fees since those had been waived.

Utility customers can contact the customer service at 816-325-7930 to discuss payment arrangements if needed, or they can email ucs@indepmo.org. Arrangements can be made to extend the time for that bill to March 31.

“It’s not their fault we couldn’t get a bill out to them,” Montgomery said, “so we’ll work with the customer. 

“We started talking about 60 days so customers could understand,” he said, referring to why bills would be larger. “But some of them are bigger (than 60), so that’s why we’re making arrangements.

Customers with an especially long billing cycle, Montgomery said, will see a smaller cycle next month.

Also, Montgomery said, utility customers can make a payment ahead of time, which will be credited toward the bill, to ward off some sticker shock when the bill ultimately arrives or can be viewed online. The city isn’t necessarily pushing that, he added, but is making people aware of that option.

Council Member Mike Steinmeyer encouraged Montgomery to remind customer service workers with the utilities to also demonstrate patience with ratepayers, knowing there has been and will be some sticker shock.

“I haven’t received a bill since November yet, and I don’t even know that I want to open my bill,” Steinmeyer said. “We took a big hit income wise last year, and I’ll be the first to say, it’s been a challenge, and there are people I know that are worried about being able to catch up.”

The city also has a moratorium on residential and commercial shutoffs through Feb. 28, and Mayor Eileen Weir said the city will have to consider waiving late fees beyond the end of February. 

“We still have a lot of folks out there who are just having a hard time with unemployment or having to leave employment to take care of family,” she said.