April 30, 2013 in City

City utility e-billing slow to gain favor

Service available for 10 years but few customers use it
By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Bobbe Moxley, left, and Joyce Brede run machines that process Spokane utility bills and other mass mailings Monday in the city’s mail center.
(Full-size photo)

Water bill break

Jaw-dropping Spokane water bills will become even less common under a new billing policy announced last week.

Starting in May, Spokane water customers will pay for the amount of water they use each month. Previously, Spokane’s water customers paid base water fees monthly, but water usage fees were paid every other month.

Water bills have become a burning city issue in recent years. In 2010, the City Council changed water rates to lower usage fees on customers who used less and increase rates on those who used more. The council last year retreated from the pricing scale after a public outcry during the summer watering season in 2011.

Last summer, the city also billed customers for their water monthly as a trial. Officials even hired extra water meter readers so that meter readings were taken monthly.

“What we really discovered out of that was that our customers really liked leveling out those two-month spikes in their bills,” said Utilities Director Rick Romero.

But Romero said officials have decided that taking monthly readings isn’t necessary. Instead, meters will be read every other month and the fee for those two months will be spread out over two bills.

Nearly a decade after Spokane first offered residents the ability to pay their bills online, the vast majority of city water, sewage and trash customers continue to receive paper bills.

While this reluctance to pay with a computer instead of writing a check has begun to fade, city officials say there’s a long way to go before city billing is a paperless exercise.

Of the city’s 72,000 customers, about 10,000 pay their bills online. An even greater number – about a quarter of all customers – have signed up to review billing information via the city’s website, spokanecity.org.

The city saves about $1 for each bill it doesn’t have to print and mail. So far about 2,000 customers have elected to receive their bill via an online statement rather than mailed to their home. But city officials say they offer and promote online billing options mostly as a convenience.

“It’s not as much tied to cost savings as it is to customer service,” said Utilities Director Rick Romero. “We try to give them as many options as we can.”

Ron Nicodemus, the city’s utilities billing manager, said the change to online billing hasn’t reduced the need for staff, though workers have shifted more to answer questions via email rather than strictly on the phone. Officials said the continued shift from paying by mail may not reduce the number of cashiers the city needs because those employees also serve other customer service functions.

Spokane County also offers its sewer customers online billing options.

County Utilities Director Bruce Rawls said officials discovered after starting an email billing program that people aren’t as responsive to email as they are to mail. So the county created a new policy: If a customer who has elected not to receive a paper bill misses a payment, they’ll get a bill in the mail the next month.

The city doesn’t offer customers a discount as an incentive to agree to have utility bills mailed to them.

“A lot of people simply feel it’s the right thing to do: not to waste paper,” Nicodemus said.

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