When Adam Parrish first relocated to West Asheville in early 2018, the software engineer wanted to handle his city utility bills, like so many other aspects of his life, online. He filled out Asheville’s e-bill registration form, waited for the first month’s total — and had the notice go straight to his spam email folder, making him miss the payment.
Parrish switched back to paper, but trying to get a physical copy of his water and sewer bill brought on a new set of headaches. The next month, he says, brought a mailed delinquent notice but not the bill itself. And his business partner, another recent West Asheville transplant, said he’d experienced the same situation twice.
A post on the social media site Nextdoor revealed that Parrish was not alone. Residents from Falconhurst, Wilshire Park, Malvern Hills and East West Asheville all chimed in, saying they hadn’t received actual utility bills before getting the associated delinquent notices. “A lot of people said, ‘Yeah, I’ve noticed some weird things too, but I just assumed it was me,’” he says.
In January, Parrish emailed Asheville City Council about his experiences, and City Manager Debra Campbell replied that “we are very interested in solving this problem.” He also submitted an open data request for the total amount of money Asheville collects through delinquent fees, and by February he had an answer: over $820,000 annually since at least fiscal year 2015-16. After forwarding that figure to city officials, Parrish says, he’s heard nothing in response.
“There’s a reverse incentive for them to fix this,” Parrish suggests. “It costs them money to fix it, and they collect less money as a result. But we are their citizens; they’re not a for-profit business.”
On Asheville’s SimpliCity open data platform, the city’s Water Resources Department lists its adopted “Delinquent & Interest Fee” revenue for the current fiscal year as $830,000. However, in response to questions from Xpress, city spokesperson Polly McDaniel clarified that this line item consists solely of individual $15 delinquent fees, with no interest included.
McDaniel said that the city does not track the average number of delinquent notices sent to customers each month, the percentage of customers that number represents or where in its service area those customers live. Dividing the $830,000 total by $15 yields over 55,300 late fee payments; Asheville’s water system serves roughly 60,000 accounts.
“The rates or late fees are designed to cover the cost of the additional mailing expense and other associated costs of a ‘late notice,’” McDaniel said. “The further notice is a benefit to the customer, and there is no profit gain with the process.”
The Water Resources Department’s Customer Service Division, which manages billing and delinquent notices, has a total fiscal 2018-19 budget of roughly $1.5 million, the lion’s share of which is over $1.3 million in employee compensation and benefits. Based on this figure, dealing with delinquent bills accounts for over 55% of the department’s customer service expenses. Xpress asked the city for confirmation of these numbers.
“Your calculation is correct. The delinquent fee also covers costs for the time to make courtesy calls, time for calls from customers concerned about the delinquent fee, postage, printing of the letters, envelopes, etc.,” McDaniel responded.
Postage and printing are not listed in its current budget, but the Customer Service Division is slated to spend $7,000 on “copying and duplication,” $25,000 on “supplies — other” and $32,300 on “telephone.” Together, those expenses represent less than 8% of the total late fee income.
Compare and contrast
Although the city did not provide its own figure for the monthly delinquency rate, an even yearly distribution of the total fee revenue over 60,000 accounts would give an estimate of 7.68%. According to John Buchanan, finance director for the city of Hendersonville, that’s more than double the rate for Asheville’s southern neighbor.
Buchanan reports that Hendersonville averages 940 late payments a month, or 3.32% of its total accounts. Like Asheville, the city charges a $15 late fee; also like Asheville, he says, “We have had complaints about [customers] not receiving bills.”
But according to Hendersonville’s fiscal year 2018-19 budget, the city collected $202,000 in water and sewer late fees while serving over 65,000 residents and businesses. With roughly 125,000 people in its service area, Asheville collects more than twice as many late fees per person served.
In Waynesville, says town accounting technician Sharon Agostini, an average of 1,441 bills are delinquent each month, representing about 20% of the town’s utility customers, who receive a 1% late penalty. “Complaints on mail delays may be received due to holidays, inclement weather, incorrect name or addresses, possible equipment issues, etc.,” Agostini says. “We will provide our customers with the best possible customer service and solutions in a timely matter.”
Angela Reece, Black Mountain’s town clerk, says her municipality also has a higher rate, with 698 of 3,612 accounts — over 19% — “delinquent or showing a balance” in April. Customers are charged a 5% late fee on their total bill. However, Reece adds, she has received only one complaint of a mailed bill not reaching a customer on time.
Black Mountain uses SouthData as its billing platform, while Asheville, Hendersonville and Waynesville all use Munis by Tyler Technologies. When asked via email about the pattern of missing mailed bills in local cities that employ Munis, Tyler spokesperson Nina Minney responded that the software was “operating as expected” and that there were “no known defects” in any of those municipalities. Minney did not respond to a query about any similar complaints Tyler had received from users in other cities.
Check my flow
In a November email to Parrish, the new resident hit by late fees, Asheville Water Resources Director David Melton noted that “staff has gone through our internal processes and did not find any issues.” McDaniel, responding to an Xpress query in April, confirmed that the city was not researching a new billing system or improvements to its current approach.
For Parrish, that answer isn’t good enough. He references a piece of mail he received from the water department — with postage stamped upside down — as evidence that something may remain amiss. “Somehow, your system generated a stack of envelopes that actually had a stamp on the window,” he speculates. “A whole batch of mail could’ve been printed that some huge percentage of it didn’t get delivered.”
The city could also do a better job of making its water billing more user-friendly, Parrish says. Text billing reminders, credit card autopay and a longer window to pay the bill before being assessed a late fee, he suggests, could all help customers avoid inadvertent charges.
While Parrish was able to get his own fees revoked, he’s concerned that elderly or low-income residents may not be able to contest delinquent charges they receive after not getting a utility bill. “I expected more out of Asheville,” he says. “I thought this town took better care of its citizens, and I worry about the underserved folks that might live here that doubt that it’s the city’s fault.”