Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Troy weighs changes to utility billing process

The Western News | December 3, 2021 7:00 AM

Troy City Council considered changes to how the municipality collects electric utility payments and sets prices and rates* for the city’s electric department last month.

City officials suggested amending regulations to make power bills the sole responsibility of property owners after municipal employees reported struggling to collect utility payments from tenants. Due to rising material costs and outdated pay rates, the councilors also entertained updates to the electric department’s pricing guidelines.

Under current regulations, the municipality allows tenants to set up accounts with the city’s electric department. City employees only had to give landlords notice if tenants fell 60 days behind on their payments. This allowed some tenants to end their leases without their landlord knowing they had failed to pay a backlog of utility bills.

“We have some tenants that leave an $800 bill for the homeowner, then the homeowner calls us and says, ‘Why didn’t I know?” said Tracy Rebo, city clerk and treasurer, during a Nov. 17 city council meeting.

In the case that a former tenant who failed to cover their utility bills requests power at another address, Rebo said city employees would require them to pay past debts. The municipality would use the funds to reimburse the homeowner.

But Rebo noted this system required city employees to take on duties outside of their job descriptions.

“It’s not up to us to be their debt collector,” she said.

Allowing tenants to hold accounts also has meant that city employees have spent hours switching accounts every time a landlord changes tenants.

To avoid these headaches, Rebo, along with Deputy Clerk Chera Cole and Power Manager Clay Campbell, recommended the city require landlords to hold electric utility accounts in their names. While city employees would accept payments from tenants, all utility bills would go directly to the property owners.

Although the initial regulation revisions would have grandfathered in tenants who already had accounts in their names, city officials had tweaked it by Nov. 30 to require all tenant accounts to be transferred into their landlord’s names no later than June 1, 2022.

Tenants that still have a meter deposit would be allowed to stay on the account. If a tenant is receiving government assistance with their utilities, landlords can add the tenant’s name in care of the owner’s mailing address.

The question of who should be responsible for utility bills has been an issue for the city for at least four years, according to Mayor Dallas Carr.

“I think it’s time we need to move on and try to correct it,” said Carr.

The proposed requirement changes also include adding a charge for certain requests to move power lines. Under the previous regulations, the electric department wouldn’t bill a resident for a request to move a power line if changing the location of the line would benefit the electric department. The new regulations would give the department the option of requiring a “reduced charge” in these cases.

To account for changes in material cost, Campbell updated pricing guidelines for work provided by the department listed in the regulations. The price for a 25-foot pole class 6, for example, increased from $100 to $223.

“You can see some have jumped up drastically,” said Campbell. “That’s what it costs me to get them so that’s what it should cost if someone needs to hook up.”

The changes would also update hourly rate guidelines. Under the new regulations, for example, a customer would be billed a rate of $45.42 per hour for the installation of an electrical service by a foreman as opposed to a previous rate of $32.82. In a follow-up interview, Rebo said the former rates were outdated and didn’t reflect the pay city employees actually took home.*

To cover the cost of providing notices, city officials included a new $10 charge for the delivery of a disconnect notice and a new $3 fee for mailing a second notice, sent when a resident’s utility payment is 60 days late.

Before voting on the changes, city officials will hold a public hearing. As of Nov. 30, city employees had not yet set a date for the hearing, according to Rebo.

*A previous version of this article referred to hourly rates customers are billed for the installation of an electrical service as wages.