Pocatello utility billing changes

Commentary by Cindy Robbins

One recent change the Pocatello Utility Billing Department implemented is leaving many residents with questions. We recently began sending out late notices for any account that is not paid by the due date listed on the billing statement.

Why? It’s a great question to start with, but first a little history. The city previously only sent out late notices when an account had a two-month balance due. This caused problems when customers failed to pay and would have their services terminated. Many citizens expressed concerns that they didn’t receive adequate notice from the city prior to having their utilities shut off. Others expressed surprise because they thought they had more time to pay.

Timing is very important. The more time that goes by without making customers aware of the issue and potential consequences results in two problems. First, the customer could continue to accrue higher balances in the 60-day window. Second, it gives customers a smaller window of opportunity to make payment arrangements with us.

Now, I’d like to answer the question of why we started sending out one-month notices. We believe it’s better customer service to provide information earlier. This gives us the ability to work with our customers who may be having financial difficulties earlier with the goal of avoiding services being terminated. Adding a 30-day notice also allows us to comply with Pocatello Municipal Code 13.30.100, which states that “utility charges shall be due and payable monthly in accordance with the billing cycle set out on the payment notices. Failure to pay a previous month’s charges by 5 p.m. of the working day prior to preparation of the subsequent month’s billing shall be considered a delinquency and cause for termination of water service.” This is the date we give on the late notice.

I’ve received other questions about our decision to send late notices for any overdue account. Those questions and my answers are below.

Why did I receive this when I pay every month?

Answer: The late notices are computer generated for any account not paid on the due date and in full.

I need to pay on the first of each month, but my bill is due the 24th. Will my water be shut off?

Answer: The late notice is a reminder that a bill is due and gives a new due date a week later. If a customer is unable to pay their bill by the new date, they need to make payment arrangements in our office to prevent the possibility of services being terminated.

Isn’t it costing the city more money to mail out these notices?

Answer: While another mailing does increase our postage budget, trying to collect past due accounts far exceeds the cost of one more mailing. The added costs to the city for collecting past due accounts include sending more notices in the form of mailings or door hangers; sending automated courtesy calls as a final reminder; having personnel drive to residences to turn off services and then back to reinstate; and ultimately if an account continues to go unpaid, turning the account over to a collection agency, which is a loss of revenue.

Why does the wording have to be so harsh?

Answer: Anytime a negative action may be taken, customers should be made aware of what that action will be prior to the action taking place. In this instance, we need to let our customers know Municipal Code says utility services can be terminated. While our notice isn’t intended to be harsh, it does need to state the consequences if the customer fails to pay or make arrangements.

I’ve also been asked what the city wishes to accomplish by sending out one-month notices. We are looking to reduce the number of accounts that continually carry balances. These balances cost our customers in late fees, reconnect fees if services are terminated and added collection fees if the account remains unpaid. Reducing the number of service terminations is another goal of the city. We can make payment arrangements to help assist customers who may be experiencing financial problems. The earlier a customer has information, the earlier they can seek assistance. It is up to the customer to come to the utility billing office to make such arrangements. We also hope to reduce the dollar amount and number of accounts sent to collections. This is a direct revenue loss for the city, which impacts all of us. Finally, we want a better working partnership with our customers in order to assist them proactively. We feel that sending both one-month and two-month late notices keeps everyone informed and allows us more time to help.

The Utility Billing Department offers several payment options with no extra fees to customers. These are bank draft, online bill pay, debit/credit card payments and drop boxes located throughout the community. We also offer budget pay for those customers who want to know exactly what their payment will be each month. We implement budget pay only in November each year so that we capture summer usage to make the payment amounts as accurate as possible. Please contact us in November for more information about budget pay. You can reach us by emailing utilities@pocatello.us, calling 208-234-6241 or coming to our office at 911 N. Seventh Ave. Our hours are Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Friday 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Cindy Robbins is the director of the Utility Billing Department for the city of Pocatello.