published Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Complaints mount in Chattanooga on sewer bill fees


by Cliff Hightower
The Tennessee American Water Company is seen in the foreground of this aerial file photo.
The Tennessee American Water Company is seen in the foreground of this aerial file photo.
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

TIMELINE

* January 2012: Tennessee-American Water informs Chattanooga and other sewer operators it would not provide billing service.

* July 2012: City enters into an interlocal agreement with Rossville and Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Authority to employ a consultant and secure a vendor for sewer billing.

* August 2012: City Council approves a contract for ENCO Utility Services to handle sewer billing.

* January 2013: The first sewer bills are mailed.

Source: City of Chattanooga

FEES ADD UP

On the back of the sewer bill, customers will find the following fees explained:

* Mail-in payments: A late charge of 10 percent of the bill could be assessed if not paid on time.

* Pay-by-phone: A $3 convenience fee will be added to the transaction.

* Pay-via-web: A $3 convenience fee will be added to the transaction.

* Walk-in payments: Payments made are subject to retailer's fees to 60 cents or $3.95 for an instant transaction.

* Recurring payments: A $3 convenience fee is added every time the customer is billed.

Source: City of Chattanooga

Convenience costs in Chattanooga.

More than 70,000 people are seeing it.

Several fees tacked onto the city's new sewer bill have produced a firestorm of complaints to city officials. Customers have complained about $3 convenience fees and not being given enough time to pay the bill.

Steve Leach, the city's administrator of Public Works, and other city officials wouldn't go so far Wednesday to say the contract would be renegotiated to lower convenience fees charged by the city's vendor.

Leach said a meeting with Hamilton County WWTA would be held today, but only one issue in on the table.

"We want to verify there are no problems with the due dates," he said.

Phil Noblett, assistant city attorney, said he also does not see the city trying to push for any amendments to the $1 million contract with ENCO Utility Services, based in Anaheim, Calif.

"You have an agreement, and it's applicable for four years," he said.

ENCO Utility Services did not respond to multiple calls or emails.

Ed Watt, chairman of the Hamilton County WWTA, also did not respond to calls.

Separate sewer bills started going out this month to all customers who use Tennessee American Water. The fees affect some customers of Chattanooga, Hamilton County WWTA and Rossville, which went together to find a billing vendor for more than 70,000 customers.

Dan Johnson, chief of staff for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said the city ordinance states customers have 15 days to pay the bill.

But James Betbeze, who lives in Highland Park, said he didn't get that chance. On Friday, Jan. 18, he came home from work and checked his mailbox. He got his sewer bill and noted he had five days to pay it.

He tried figuring out how he could pay another way.

"I noticed every other avenue, including the mail in, would have an added-on cost," he said.

The cheapest retailer where he could pay his bill in person has been a Walmart that would charge a $1.50 convenience fee.

City officials said another way to pay without getting charged would be to use direct pay from online banking.

But Betbeze said that wasn't made clear on the bill.

"It wasn't listed as an option," Betbeze said.

The water company informed several sewer providers last year that it would end its practice of billing sewer and water together. So those cities were forced to find a billing service.

Leach said Tuesday night the city had let Hamilton County WWTA negotiate the contract and was not involved.

Chris Clem, attorney for Hamilton County WWTA, disputed that. Those involved in the new sewer billing process knew there would be a learning curve for them and the public.

"We anticipated having a lot of questions the first month," he said.

The sewer bill tacks on a $3 convenience fee if a customer pays by phone, online or through recurring charges. If late, users could face a 10 percent late charge.

Customer can also go to a number of Walmarts or check advance locations to pay their bills. But those retailers also can add charges, ranging from 60 cents to $4.

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