Grovetown implemented changes to the format of its water utility bills this month and officials say they are still working out kinks during the transition.
The city is moving away from the previous method which contained water and sewer usage charges for its customers on a postcard, according to city Mayor Gary Jones, who said it was a major privacy violation, among other issues.
"The city of Grovetown has been doing that for years and it was time to get away from that," Jones said of the postcard bills. "They were so small that I'm assuming that they were just sticking to other mail and getting lost, a lot of people were complaining that they were not getting bills."
The shift is also the result of an analysis of the city's billing processes by the Georgia Municipal Association, requested by Jones last year.
"When I brought in GMA, they did a study on our processes and that was one of their recommendations that we needed to move away from that," Jones said of the move away from the city's longtime process of sending out postcard bills.
The new format now consists of paper bills enclosed in envelopes mailed to each resident. The bills will also include more concise information regarding due dates and how to pay bills, as well as quarterly newsletters and other information such as signs of water leaks and what to look for.
"We are hoping that this is going to give us better tracking, better response to paying the bills, etc.," Jones said. "There is a lot of information on the back of the bill. We are going to start sending out a quarterly mayors newsletter to update the folks as well."
Jones said that some issues did arise during the transition, including bulk mailing issues and duplicate billing, among others.
An issue with the placement of the customer address and its location in proximity to the clear window on the envelopes caused problems with bulk mailing practices at the post office, according to a news release from the city.
"It was discovered at the bulk mailing facility that if the bill moved within the envelope part of the address could slide outside the envelope window potentially causing confusion in mailing so the bills were brought back to the utility billing department for correction so that all customer addresses could be clearly and easily seen and read during the postal delivery process," according to the release.
But Jones said that was an easy fix and merely required a software change to relocate the addresses to the appropriate location on the bill.
The new billing format has created substantially more work for the water utility department employees, Jones said, and that it takes three to four days to print, stuff and mail the nearly 5,000 invoices, ultimately lessening the number of days customers have to meet the due date.
"The way that it's running now, we are sending bills out or have been in the past, by the 28th and the 29th and the due date is on the 5th. That has been an issue of mine is that we can't change the due date without changing the ordinance, so we are going to try to get the bills out by the 25th of the month, so people at least can have it a week in advance," Jones said.
A new folding machine purchased by the city that could not handle the number of paper as expected, also caused some issues and resulted in duplicate billing, and an extra nearly $300 in unnecessary postage costs.
"It seems like the folder that we got, even though we were told it was sufficient, doesn't appear to be sufficient to handle the number of invoices we are sending out."Jones said, adding that no complaints have been received from people saying they didn't receive their bill, with some receiving two.
But Jones said the city is looking to alleviate all of these issues by potentially outsourcing the printing, stuffing and mailing of the bills.
"What we do is we upload the data and send it to them and they print it out and put it in the envelopes and mail it at a cheaper rate than we can do it all," Jones said. "If we don't' have to do the invoicing and the mailing here and we could just do the data, that wouldn't put so much pressure on the water billing supervisor so she could confirm this data is accurate when it's sent to the outsourcing company, who in turn just turns around and prints what we send."
The changes to the billing format were long overdue, Jones said, adding that he expected a decrease in the number of water cutoffs with the new format in place.
"I think we will see a drastic reduction in cutoffs, not only because of the invoicing and that people are actually receiving their bills, and it's got directions on it, but I think primarily because it's gotten out, not only by other customers and the media, that we are cutting water off, but some of them have experienced it, so they now know that we are going to go by that. It was not being done," Jones said regarding a large number of accounts left unpaid, but still receiving access to water.
"I would say that it was something we have been needing to do a long time, however there was nothing that was given to the public that was clear on when it was going to transpire."
Another change, Jones cited, was a change in utility billing supervisors.
Longtime billing supervisor Renee Beard was terminated from her position in January for reasons of "inefficiency in performing assigned duties," according to previous reports.
Beard recently submitted a request to appeal of her termination, which was ultimately denied by the city council during its Monday meeting. Council member and former longtime mayor Dennis Trudeau voted to approve the appeal request, along with council member Vicky Cook. Denial of Beard's request for appeal was voted for by council member Eric Blair, Sylvia Martin and Jones.
Jones said that the changes are necessary and asked for continued patience from residents.
"It's positive and it's long overdue. We just ask people to be patient until we can work through all the little bugs," Jones said.