Greer addresses city’s utility billing issues

Staff Report
Last week, Melissa Mayor Reed Greer last week posted a message on the city's Facebook page addressing utility billing issues that have been experienced since last fall.

MELISSA - June elicited anger from many Melissa residents as they found that their utilities were being disconnected.

According to City Manager Jason Little, the key to avoiding that outcome is communication with the city.

“There’s just been a lot of bad circumstances around this whole situation that haven’t been ideal for the customer and certainly not ideal for the staff," Little said. "But we’re here to try and help any way we can.”

Last fall, the city’s third-party utility billing provider unexpectedly collapsed. This left Melissa officials scrambling to keep everything running as they unexpectedly transitioned to a new system.

During this time, the lack of manpower available led to the temporary halt of late fees and disconnections for non-payment.

In May, city officials announced that, beginning with bills due in June, normal processes would resume. That included penalties and service disconnections if warranted.

Residents were first given past-due notices. Customers who didn’t contact the city were then notified that their services were in jeopardy. Ultimately, those who still did not respond had their utilities disconnected.

“We’ve been trying to tell people that if you are experiencing any hardship - COVID-19 related or not - we need to know you are dealing with that. Otherwise, it just looks like a delinquent account,” Little said. “There are situations where we can help, but we can’t help if we don’t know.”

The entire transition over the past month has been challenging for city staff, to say the least. Little admits that there has been a learning curve, but residents should now expect better service.

In response to some of the accusations being levied on social media, Melissa Mayor Reed Greer penned a message directly to residents explaining the city’s position in greater detail.

In the message, which appears on the city’s Facebook page, Greer explained that last year the city was “put in an unprecedented position of having the third-party billing and payment processing company we were using shut down suddenly and without warning.”

This forced the city to become “fully responsible for this incredibly complex process with limited staff and few options.” A temporary stopgap program was put in place, however, “The billing and accounting errors we inherited from the closed company took time and effort to clean up.”

Between November 2019 and May 2020, Greer said, “late fees and disconnects were suspended. Then in late March, in a process that usually takes twice as long, we completed a partnership with Tyler Technologies for the billing and payment processing and kept the customer service aspect inhouse.”

Greer said the city recognizes better communication likely was needed and it continues to improve its processes.

“We are not going to commit to being infallible, but we can confirm some of the accounts representing the fact their account is current is only true after a payment was brought forth after being disconnected.”

Unpaid balances and the disconnect notices “were sent via the means in which you regularly get your water bill,” Greer said. “Disconnect day is never a `good’ day for Utility Billing, but it is the method in which we protect the integrity of the entire system.”

The system, he explained, is self-sustaining. “Every dollar that is collected is used specifically for the system’s maintenance and upkeep. ... Failure to maintain a current balance on any account is a blemish to the strength of the other nearly 5,000 accounts.”

Greer said the city recognizes “the frustration associated with water disconnection, but also know the Utility Department is working to help all of these nearly 5,000 accounts maintain a regular monthly billing and payment process.

“Late fees and disconnections are the only way we are able to ensure those stockholders who are maintaining a stable billing/payment process that the strength of their investment in the entire system is being maintained.”

Residents who are experiencing issues are asked to contact the city’s Utility Billing department at cityofmelissa.com/departments/utility_billing/index.php.