Winchester faces utility woes left by February 2021 polar vortex price spike – WLDS
The city of Winchester continues to grapple with the plummet of soaring natural gas prices last year.
Mayor Rex McIntire explained to Winchester City Council on Wednesday night that some people who pay a particular amount each month (called Level Pay) for natural gas use struggled with the extra 3% cost of the February peak 2021. The city approved a plan in March last year that allowed residents and businesses to pay off their February 2021 bill in 33 interest-free installments to pay off the unpaid bill.
McIntire says some on the flat pay option are struggling to cope with the extra 3% cost: “I just want people to know if they don’t understand what we had to do [in March 2021 with the installments ordinance], come to the town hall. We have people who will talk to you and explain what the situation is. We also have a problem with some people, and it could be someone on Level Pay… I’m not going after anyone in particular… but they don’t make their monthly Level Pay payment and then they wonder why their bill is blowing up . I mean we can explain this to you and how it works too. I know Level Pay works well for a lot of people, but for some people, for me, it doesn’t work; and I know this created a problem with the 3% payout to try and catch up. “
Alderman Lawrence Coultas noted that only 4 citizens have fulfilled the additional 3% obligation on their pay level bill each month. Last year, McIntire said more than 200 Winchester customers chose to pay the biggest bill in February 2021 in full.
The city’s billing system had a miscalculation problem. Coultas says he came to town hall and called the company to try to fix the problem: “We had a major problem a month and a half ago. Everyone on Level Pay, their balance was messed up, so we got our hands on Locust and explained to them that we had a problem. We also explained to them that when we looked at multiple invoices, the amount that got messed up was their September invoice amount in all cases. These customers had to be billed twice or something. Either way, Locust finally got things right and we all approved them, but everyone who was on pay tier was screwed up.
Coultas says no one should be at the level of pay right now in town except for the 4 people who made their 3% obligation under the rules of the level pay option: “The reason is that the order says, and I realize February was a unique case, but the order that was drafted for the tier salary for Winchester said that once you were in default on an amount on a past invoice, you were no longer on the salary level. Well, last February’s bill threw everyone off balance, so everyone is late. If you look at the order, whoever paid the full amount could have stayed on the level pay and I don’t think there were many who did.
Coultas went on to say that the Level Pay system itself needs to be completely reworked and reconfigured for new usage numbers for city customers. No council member could recall the last time the average usage reconfiguration was done on Wednesday night. Coultas says the reconfiguration must be done, per the city ordinance, at the end of each fiscal year.
Coultas also believes the city should change the way it notifies customers of overdue payments. He currently says the city has no way of distinguishing between someone who is often late and someone who misses a utility payment for the first time, and everyone gets a notice stuck on his front door if he’s delinquent: “If you’re a delinquent for the first time in who knows how many years and you’ve paid your bill religiously and never been a problem and all of a sudden a month , you miss a payment… you know, maybe the first time in three years, we’re gonna put a notice on your door anyway. I understand why someone would be unhappy with this, but how do you distinguish between this and someone who has been delinquent on several occasions? For me there is a difference. If you’re a first time offender in maybe three or four years or forever, I would rather they get a phone call the first time instead of putting an offender notice on their door. Coultas says the notice is often embarrassing and he understands that this often prompts people to charge their bills, but he thinks it would be more courteous for a city employee to call or verify the person first. before sticking a notice on his door.
Mayor Rex McIntire noted that some of the late payment issues can be attributed to late deliveries from the post office. One in attendance noted that White Hall had recently faced similar issues with mailed invoices not reaching customers by their due date. McIntire has issued a warning and stern reminder to the public regarding the due date of their utility bill in Winchester: “If you live in Winchester and use our utilities, you are going to be billed or billed as you. received it in the mail. or not… you have an invoice that will be due on the 25th of each month. If you don’t get [your bill] by mail, you better call the town hall to find out what happened because we are sending them.
McIntire also said he recently spoke with Ron Ragan of UGM saying that December bills and possibly January bills will be higher than normal due to cold temperatures, but the city’s gas supplier had covered enough natural gas in the summer and fall to keep prices from hitting last year’s record highs.
The board reached consensus to add a note on next month’s utility bills to remind customers of the 3% overrun billed to them from the February 2021 peak. A review of billing procedures, including the addition of an online electronic option, could be explored at a future meeting.