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Electronics disrupt billing
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MONROE - Getting the city water bills to 4,500 customers each quarter is an orderly process, unless the electronics get confused. That's what happened in July when hundreds of Monroe Water Utility customers got a 10-day disconnect notice, instead of their quarterly water bills.

Utility employees collect water meter readings during the first week of each quarter. That information is fed into the city's computer system, and the city treasurer's office picks up the information using a billing software program to generate the bills.

Employees at the treasurer's office print the bills at city hall on the bill forms that customers receive in the mail. Bills are mailed at the end of the month in which meters are read.

Customers then have about 20 days to pay their water bills. After that date, the utility starts compiling a list of customers who haven't paid and will receive a 10-day notice of disconnection. The utility also starts adding fees and penalties.

At least, that's how the water billing process is supposed to work.

The most recent billing had some problems. City employees learned in July that some water bills didn't get printed or mailed out at the end of June.

When they compiled the list of names to send out disconnect notices for non-payment, they had about 900 names, twice the normal amount. Still, they couldn't distinguish which customers hadn't received a bill and wouldn't have remembered the due date, and which ones did receive a bill but simply were delinquent.

With a call to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission for advice, utility employees decided to send out the disconnect notices and dispense with the penalties for missing the payment due date. As customers called or stopped by city hall for an explanation for the notice, city employees explained the situation.

"Most customers were understanding when they learned what had happened; although, I guess the mayor got a few unhappy phone calls," said Kelly Finkenbinder, Director of Public Works.

Mike Kennison, supervisor of the water utility, believes the billing problem happened when the utility moved its billing office to the city hall in mid-June, in the middle of the second quarter's billing process.

Also, the utility had lost its accounting manager, who did the bill printing, in May.

"We called the software people, and the only thing they could tell us was that maybe something got changed on the printer - either it was cleared (of its settings) or it defaulted," Kennison said.

Kennison suggested one scenario for the cause of the misprints: The printer finished one stack of bill forms, and when employees refilled the paper supply, the printer began the job again from the start, leaving some names off at the end.

A similar problem happened in January, when the printer doubled printed the last customer name on each stack of forms.

Even without the printing problems, the utility sends out hundreds of disconnect notices each quarter.

Kennison said about 10 percent of customers do not pay their water bills on time. The bill includes water usage, sewer service and trash pick-up.

"The number of unpaid (quarterly) water bills normally ranges between 300 and 600," he said.

Most non-payments come from residential customers, Kennison said.

The utility has about 3,700 residential customers, almost 600 commercial customers, 26 industrial and 37 governmental customers.

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) dictates the process for collecting unpaid bills. It even determines the wording on the disconnect notices, Kennison said.

A 10-day notice is the first step required by the PSC, followed by a 24-hour notice.

But the utility also sends out a 48-hour notice, which is not required by the PSC.

Kennison has found the 48-hour notices to be particularly effective, even more so than the 10-day notices, reducing as many as 400 to 500 non-payments to about 100.

"If we didn't use 48-hour notices, we'd be delivering that many (400 to 500) 24-hour notices," Kennison said.

The 24-hour notices of disconnection are hand-delivered and posted on the door of the customer's property. Utility employees must also try to contact every non-paying customer directly. The utility uses telephone calls mostly, but will also use e-mail or door knocking, if necessary.

"The PSC said we must use every reasonable effort to contact those people before we turn the water off," Kennison said.

The efforts appear to pay off nicely because Monroe gets its outstanding water bills "whittled down to about nothing," he said.

If the water is turned off, the water utility must notify the county human services department and the city building inspector.

"Without water, the property is deemed to be an uninhabitable premises," Kennison said.

To get the water turned back on, a customer must follow the PSC rules of making out a payment agreement with the utility to get the bill paid off and pay a $40 re-connect charge. If a payment is missed and the agreement is broken, the customer must pay $80 and make out another payment agreement.

Water customers can voluntarily make a payment agreement with the water utility at any time at city hall.

The good thing about voluntary payment agreements, Kennison said, is that the customer is paying ahead of the quarterly bill and does not get a delinquent penalty for missing a payment, unless the quarterly bill is not paid on time.