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City asks some customers to estimate water usage

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A new billing system for water customers could not be tested before being implemented, resulting in some customers receiving estimates that are likely lower than their actual usage.

The estimates may not be accurate due to a lack of customer history in the new system, Todd Wildermuth, public information officer for the city, said. The city also encountered errors in the software translating information from the meters into the billing system, City Manager Joe Neeb said.

“What the staff has to do, they have to manually check the account on the old system and manually check the account on the new system and make sure all the numbers are accurate, and so that takes time,” Neeb said.

A portion of the December bills was sent out with an estimated amount so customers would at least get a mailing to indicate a payment is due, Wildermuth said.

The staff is now getting ahead in checking the accounts and only about half the city’s customers should receive an estimated bill, Neeb said. The city has 20 billing cycles each month, each with about 900 water customers, Neeb said.

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Neeb and Wildermuth said any necessary corrections to customer accounts will be included in the January billing.

The usage cost was estimated from an average household usage of around 2,500 to 3,000 gallons, Neeb said. The city uses a figure slightly below that average to account for those who have lower usage.

“If they are a heavy user then they will be paying a lot less than what their actual usage will be” if they pay just the estimate, Neeb said.

The city is asking customers to estimate what they would pay for December based upon past usage and pay a little more than that.

“The reason we’re saying pay a little bit more than what you’ve normally paid in a month of December is because the challenge we’ll have after the system gets up and running, it will try to make a correction to the system, which means that if everybody paid their minimum, they’re going to see a larger than normal bill” in January, Neeb said.

Neeb said the city will work with anyone who might have trouble paying their water bill.

“If that differential is too big and they can’t handle it within that one month of payment, we’ll extend that out a little bit. We’ll give time to get that corrected,” Neeb said.

The city suspended disconnecting service in mid-March in response to the pandemic and continues to do so, but encourages customers who can’t pay their bills to contact the billing department to arrange a payment plan.

“We will work with everybody. We have to catch everybody up at some point in time, but we are not shutting anybody off for lack of payment at this time,” Neeb said.

The city was not able to test the new system before sending out bills because it required “live” data, Neeb said.

“It had to have legitimate information, which means that there’s less room for error, and we had a few errors with the translation of the information from the field to the billing system,” Neeb said.

Wildermuth said customers who have had their bills automatically drafted from a bank account will not have to set that process up again. Those who pay by credit card will have to set up another account, however.

“Customers who have previously used and want to continue to use a credit card for automatic payments through the online option will have to set up a new account, which they can do now,” Wildermuth said.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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