By Terry Rogers
Milford City Manager Richard Carmean says that beginning in October city residents will see a change in the due dates on their utility bills. The city has decided to extend the time allowed between billing and payment from two weeks to three weeks. Bills will still be due on Mondays unless the date falls on a holiday, and the actual date the bill is due will still be printed on the bill.
“We have four billing cycles, and every cycle will now have an additional week from the date of the billing until the payment is due,” Mr. Carmean explained. “Customers are still welcome to pay prior to the due date, but we know that many residents prefer to pay close to the date the bill is due and just wanted to make them aware of this change.”
Milford has made several changes to their utility billing system over the past year, beginning with a decision to outsource both billing and mailing of utility bills. City Council voted in March 2013 to contract with Advanced Processing & Imaging Inc. to process utility bills for the city, and with Pinnacle Data Systems to print and mail the bills. Mr. Carmean explained that when the city went to four billing cycles rather than one, it created a significant amount of work for city employees.
“In just over one year, our utility customers grew from 3,000 to 8,000 customers,” Mr. Carmean said. “One due date and one disconnect date became chaotic. I checked with other utility companies and towns in the area and found that few of them did a once-per-month billing cycle. In fact, one I spoke to said they read meters, send out bills and do disconnects every day. We knew that was far more than we needed here in town, so we chose a four-cycle billing process.” Mr. Carmean further explained that the city was already divided into quadrants, so it was easy to group the city into four billing cycles. Initially, he said, staff was resistant to the change.
“They had the idea that they got through one ridiculously crazy week each month and then it was over,” Mr. Carmean said. “They were worried that by going to four cycles, the craziness would last all month, but they have found that it has not happened.” He said that outsourcing the billing and mailing process has significantly reduced the workload on city employees who no longer have to print, fold and stuff utility bills. In addition, because bulk mailing is no longer offered in Milford, Mr. Carmean said that a staff member had to physically drive the bills to Dover each week for mailing. Outsourcing those duties allows the utility department to focus on collection of payments and responding to customer concerns. Although tax bills were processed and mailed in-house for 2013, the city plans to use the outsourcing company to mail those bills in 2014 due to the savings and workload reduction the city realizes from the utility bill process.
Mr. Carmean said that the new format for the electric bills has also helped customers better understand their electric usage. The new bill format was presented to City Council on August 12 at the monthly meeting. On September 9, Mr. Carmean reported that all four billing cycles had received the new bills, and that although there were minor issues discovered, the new format was met with positive responses from most customers. The new bills also allow the city to notify customers of upcoming events or new policies. Mr. Carmean said that the city is seeing an increase in online bill payments, and he is looking into the possibility of eliminating paper bills for those who choose that option. Currently, every customer is mailed a paper bill with a return envelope, and Mr. Carmean says that eliminating even some of those mailings could save the city money.
“A lot of people use online payment due to the convenience and to save money,” Mr. Carmean said. “We know that the majority of those paper bills sent to people who use online payment are ending up in the trash, especially since if a customer needs a copy of the bill at a later time, they can download a copy. We would like to offer those online customers who don’t need a paper bill each month the option to opt-out of paper billing, but right now we don’t have that capability.”
Mr. Carmean also explained that customers can set up automatic payment of utility bills and that the city also has a budget program available where the customer’s utility usage is averaged over a set number of months so that they pay the same amount each month. At the end of the budget program, overpayments are returned and underpayments are billed to the customer. For more information about automatic billing or the budget payment plan, individuals can contact the City of Milford at 302-422-6616.