Photo by Travis Rains.
KINGMAN –The components and associated costs of a City of Kingman water bill can be enough to make eyes roll and feet stomp, and John Henning argues that the frustration doesn't stop there.
“I walked in there, as I always have for 10 years, and all of a sudden, boom, no more extension,” said Kingman resident John Henning.
He is unhappy that the City decided as of April 1 to no longer give additional extensions for paying a water bill, as well as how the City went about the process of changing its policy. Tina Moline, City finance director, said the change was for “fair, consistent and effective collection practices.”
“If you couldn’t pay the current amount on that due date, they would extend it out to 30 days,” Henning said. “And that was in effect for as long as I’ve been here.”
Moline added that customers utilizing the additional extension were given verbal notice about the policy change so they wouldn’t be surprised.
However, Henning said he and neighbors he spoke with were not notified, effectively being blindsided by the policy change. He explained that those living on fixed incomes like he is count on the City’s compassion and leeway in order to pay their bills.
Additional extensions will still be given for extenuating circumstances like deaths in the family or hospital stays, including other occurrences that will be judged on a case by case basis.
“There is always a special circumstance, and we will grant an additional grace period for special circumstances,” Moline said. “But a special circumstance is something that happens once in a while, not something that is recurring on a monthly basis.”
Moline explained that the City is required to read the meters between 25 to 35 days each month, so customers have a general idea of when their bill will be due and can therefore plan accordingly. Some customers say that window makes it hard to budget from month to month.
Moline added sometimes customers call and say a bill was never received.
“Even if you don’t get your bill because of mail, or because you’ve been away, you have about a week that you know that your bill is going to come due,” Moline said. “And so what we have suggested to customers is even though you don’t receive a bill, you’re still responsible even though maybe you haven’t checked your mail, or it got lost in the mail, whatever the case may be. You’re still responsible for the bill and for that service.”
She said because customers know a general time frame when their bill will be due, worst case scenario, they can call the billing department and inquire as to the due date and cost. Moline called attention to local organizations that provide payment assistance to those who need it like Praise Chapel, St. Vincent de Paul Society, WACOG and the Salvation Army.
The City also hopes to provide an online billing option to customers as early as this summer.
“We understand where they’re coming from,” said Melissa Ellico, City finance administrator, regarding frustrated customers and noting that City employees pay rates as well. “And we don’t want it to be a hardship on them, just like we wouldn’t want it to be a hardship on us. Everybody has to work together.”
Ellico explained that sewer bills and data collection associated with them go through a process. The first step is for meters to be read in the field before being processed and mailed to customers.
“Our meter readers have a route that they follow,” Ellico said. “It starts in one place in the city and they do route after route after route in the same sequence throughout the month until they get to the end of the month, and they have then at that point done all the meters in town.”
Alfred Mayo is one of those meter readers, of which there are only three for the more than 21,000 meters needing read each
month. The readers submit their data to the City upon completing each of the 60 routes throughout town.
“At least 400,” Mayo said of the meters he reads each day from the hours between 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. “On a good day I can get 500 done. If you get a route with 200 meters, and then another guy’s doing a route with 400, the guy with 400 could be back before the guy with 200 because of the way they’re laid out.”
He added that finding those meters can be a challenge as well because they are sometimes hidden under dirt or brush. He said dealing with customer complaints and doing rereads on meters where a discrepancy was found takes additional time.
Caution is also key for the readers, as syringes and all manners of scorpions and spiders make homes within the meter boxes. Doing a job right and with care takes time, Mayo pointed out.
“We do our best, we’re honest and we’re not going to rip them off,” Mayo said, adding that one tool used in meter reading, the Interrogator, is a high-tech device that stores data such as that of previous reads.
He explained that means if a read is off, the Interrogator will pick it up and let the reader know the read needs to be looked at again. “You can see how time consuming it is, but we get the read,” Mayo said of the entire process. “I wish it was better, but it is what it is.”
The bill is payable once mailed, and customers have 20 days to pay before it becomes delinquent and an additional $3 is tacked onto a delinquent notice that includes a shutoff date. Customers have a 10-day grace period to pay before service is disconnected.
It costs about $28 to reactivate if service is disconnected, and a deposit may be required.
Above all the headaches, those brought on by the sewer rates reign supreme. The underlying cause is the City's two technology-advanced wastewater treatment plants of Hilltop and Downtown. Moline explained that the expansions at those facilities were required to meet environmental quality standards.
Henning said he blames the City for the “unreasonable” rates.
“They should have fixed that sewer plant when the cost wasn’t so high,” he said. “If I could get out of Kingman, I would. That’s how mad I am about this.”
At that time, around 2007-2008, the City was experiencing a boom in new homes and sewer connections. Still, with about a $50 million bill to Kingman stemming from the plants, Moline said the City knew rates would have to increase to keep up with the more than $3 million in annual debt payments.
What Kingman didn't know was that the Great Recession would hit at around the same time, leveling the City's hope for reduced rates after a few years.
"Well then the Great Recession hit, and so we weren’t experiencing the growth that we had hoped," Moline said. "And unfortunately, in order to continue to make the debt payments, the rates had to continue to increase."
Those high-tech treatment plants are also more costly to maintain and require capital improvement projects. Council now faces a dilemma: embark on those projects or lower rates for customers.
Henning credits Mayor Monica Gates for remaining in contact with him regarding possible reduction of the rates. However, that depends on the amount of new customers the City receives, as well as the Municipal Utilities Commission’s recommendation to Council on what to do with the cash reserves. Council will then make a final decision by voting.
MUC is currently gathering information so as to make an informed recommendation to Council. The commission meets tonight at 5:30 in Council chambers.