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Utility billing backlog continues

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Elizabeth City is still behind on sending out customers’ utility bills – raising concerns among many they'll get slammed with multiple bills in one month.

City councilors and City Manager Rich Olson discussed the billing backlog during a finance committee meeting on Thursday. The city has spent months trying to switch to new billing software, but the city's had to wrestle with numerous glitches, get staffers up to speed on a new program, and find a lot more time for customer support. Notably, the city has two vacant part-time customer service positions it’s trying to fill, according to Olson.

The city plans to send out all November bills by Jan. 13 and all December bills by the end of January or early February, Olson said. Though Olson said last month he expected bills to be current early this month, he said the new goal is realistic.

“Realistically, by the end of the month or maybe the first week in February, we should be caught up,” Olson also.

He said the city's billing issues are frustrating for customers, and they tell city officials that often.

“I can't go anywhere and I know you can't go anywhere without having someone ask about their utility bill,” Olson told city officials.

Councilwoman Anita Hummer, the council’s mayor pro tem, agreed, adding that it's hard to explain the problems to constituents.

City Council isn't exempt from those problems either.

Mayor Joe Peel told Olson he hasn't gotten a utility bill in months, but he's still tried to pay on his regular schedule.

Councilor Ray Donnelly also said he has yet to get a water bill for one of his properties.

Olson advised Peel and Donnelly — as he has other customers — to wait until the city sends them their bill.

While praising the city's “conscientious” customers who want to pay their bills on time, Olson said the city loses a lot of staff time looking up customers' information and generating a bill on the spot. Generating bills and fielding customer calls takes time that staffers would otherwise spend catching up on bills for the city's 11,000 or so utility customers.

The billing backlog also creates another concern: customers don't want to get hit with multiple bills in one month.

Olson said many customers, particularly those living paycheck to paycheck, are worried about getting multiple bills in quick succession. Back bills will be spaced about three weeks apart, he said.

Fortunately, Olson noted, the billing delays happened during the fall, meaning customers’ incoming bills will be relatively small. Mild weather means people use less electricity to keep their homes a comfortable temperature.

But winter's arrival means bills will start getting larger, and that makes it more important to avoid “stacking bills” on people, he said.

“We need to get this done as quickly as possible so we don't have customers getting two large bills within a 30-day period,” Olson said.

Olson also said the city is currently trying to fill two vacant part-time customer service jobs.

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