City Manager Shane Shields briefs council on why Sept 1 utility bills soared for many

by Tracy McCue, Sumner Newscow — In a nutshell, it was a combination of unlucky factors that resulted in some customers seeing a tremendous increase in their utility bill that came out on Sept. 1, according to Wellington City Manager Shane Shields.

The council addressed the issue head-on Tuesday night after there was quite a bit of social media outrage about the unusual spike in the utility bills. That social media angst did not materialize in packing the council chambers on Tuesday night as was promised. Just five people showed up and that included Reverend Wendell Skinner of Church Ignited who was in charge of the opening prayer.

No action was taken Tuesday night.

Perhaps it was unlucky timing. The city was short-staffed in July due to COVID-19 and quarantine requirements impacting the city’s utility billing, city clerk and municipal court offices. As a result, two of the meter readers were brought in to maintain the utility billing office functions while the other staff members were away.

That in turn led to several meters being physically unread in July. Of the 4,971 utility customers, 2,091 customers were potentially affected. So for those customers that didn’t have their meters read, an estimation of the bills was made by the billing software system.

The estimation was based on three numbers: those of the previous two-month billings, and the same month from the year before.

The problem was the time of year it happened. The August 1 period was for usage on June 16 to July 15, which is usually significantly lower than the next billing of Sept. 1  which was for July 16 to Aug. 15. So on Sept. 1, when actual meter readings were obtained, it made up for the lower estimated usage of the August 1 period on several bills.

Shield states:

“The combination of both of those factors resulted in the Sept. 1 billing statement begin higher than normally expected. The Sept. 1 billing is making up for the Aug. 1 estimate that was lower than actual usage. In the end, no charges have been made other than for actual usage.”

Shield said the city is working with those impacted by the situation and that may have difficulty with their current bill, including using the Good Faith Pay agreement which allows the amount to be spread over a longer, reasonable, period of time.

Also, the city is extending the waiver of late fees to Sept. 30, 2020. Customers impacted by the situation and who may have difficulty with the bill should contact the Utility Billing Office by Sept. 21.

City Council reaction

Councilmember Jennifer Heersche said her major concern was the lack of transparency with the matter.

“I have people tell me that they opened their city bill and were in total shock,” Heersche said. “Perhaps, a press release or media statement would have helped ease people’s tension.”

Shield said the local media were contacted once there appeared to be outrage over the billing. In the city memo he wrote:

Present staff does not recall when it was last necessary to use it in that respect. Staff also does not recall any significant problems in using the estimate function in individual account situations. No problems were foreseen or expected with the decision to use the estimate function in this situation. Anytime the estimate function is used for any account, the billing statement shows an “e” in the current reading column.”

Councilmember Kevin Dodds wondered with today’s technology if there is a way to read these meters remotely.

Assistant manager Jason Newberry said the city is currently testing such a system as we speak and the review on it has been positive. It is a pilot program through the Kansas Power Pool and is still in the experimental phase.

Shields urged customers to look into going with the average monthly payment plan in which customers pay their bills in 12 equal installments throughout the year, based on usage from the previous year. That way there are never any surprises.

“People with the average monthly plan, probably would not have seen this wild fluctuation in their utility bills,” he said.

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