Council member disputes being 'abusive' during scheduled shut-off
Mike Steinmeyer acknowledges that he could have handled the situation better, but the Independence City Council member insists he was not verbally abusive toward a city technician who came to shut off electricity at his home last month for non-payment.
In a May 21 email to some city managers and department heads – one of several emails obtained through a public records request – the worker’s supervisor said Steinmeyer told him he is council member and became verbally abusive when told his service was going to be disconnected, refused access to the electric meter at his home and asked for time to pay the bill, as he hadn’t made a payment since October.
Steinmeyer acknowledged the missed payments and says he and his wife paid their outstanding bill the morning of the scheduled shutoff May 21, which city staff confirmed, but also disputes the account of his encounter with the meter reader and says he didn’t seek special treatment.
“I was never abusive,” the council member told The Examiner. “I told the meter reader to come over the fence and shut me off. He didn’t know I was (a council member) until he talked with his supervisor.”
“I told him I paid the bill, but if I’m on the shutoff list, then shut me off,” he added, saying he would rather be shut off than see an elderly neighbor on a fixed income who’d been struggling to pay a bill get disconnected. Steinmeyer said his own family has suffered some financial hardships during the pandemic, which led in part to the unpaid electric bill while the city had suspended late payment fees and shutoffs for non-payment. The city reinstated shutoffs last month.
Steinmeyer, who was elected in 2020 to represent the city’s southeast district, talked with both City Manager Zach Walker and Jim Nail, director of Independence Power and Light, that day about what he said was subpar customer service. He said he tried more than once that day, and over the course or previous months, to call the city utilities’ customer service but could never get an answer after long waits. It’s also a subject he’s brought up during council meetings.
He also did not receive a bill for a few months, he said – a citywide problem when a ransomware attack in late 2020 delayed utility billing for at least a month.
“I tried several times, and this is my frustration,” Steinmeyer said of trying to talk with customer service. “It got to the point, I thought, ‘What does the ratepayer go through?’ and make this a science experiment.”
“Maybe I did it the wrong way – I probably did – but I don’t want to take away that people are struggling.”
In an email to Nail, Steinmeyer said he didn’t want special treatment but rather to understand the “normal” treatment of ratepayers, including those facing disconnection. He compared his experience to that of a “secret shopper” trying to learn strengths and weaknesses of the city’s customer service.
Later that day, Nail told Walker and other administrators that Steinmeyer acknowledged receiving delinquent notices that get sent to customers before a shutoff. Nail said he explained that when a technician is sent for a shutoff, they can’t simply take the customer’s word that they are paying the bill at the present time.
“He intentionally put himself in this position, apparently in order to provoke a needless confrontation,” Nail wrote.
According to the city, about 7,900 utility accounts were behind on payments in May – from about 64,000 accounts total – for about $3 million past due. Steinmeyer’s home had been one of 915 scheduled for disconnection in May, and all but 100 went through because no payment arrangement had been made.
Ultimately, the technician’s supervisors nixed the shutoff, seeing that Steinmeyer had paid the bill – $1,200 total, from his own accounts, the council member said – and one of those supervisors even paid his neighbor’s bill.
“I had made a payment the day before and then we paid the balance that morning,” Steinmeyer said. “If I was rude, that was never my intent. I apologized to the meter readers that he got assigned the short end.”
The council member still says the city needs to improve its customer service, and he’s questioned the city’s fuel charge that is standard on the utility bills, particularly the high adjustment after February’s cold snap that IPL has proposed spreading out over several months.
“I don’t want us to lose sight of the 800 people that are being shut off,” Steinmeyer said. “There’s a lot of people still suffering from the pandemic; that’s the humanity part.”
“How do we get innovative and provide better care? I don’t want special treatment; want the same treatment as what the single mom’s going through, the grandmother. I don’t want to lose sight of the little lady who’s struggling. That’s who we should be talking about.”