PORTAGE | Barring any complications, residents who stop by the Utility Services Department to pay their bill soon won't have to make the monthly trip.
Utility Department Secretary-Treasurer Sherry Smolar said an online bill pay system should soon be up and running. Customers will be able to access the site through the city's website. Information on the online bill paying also will be included on this month's billing. Smolar said there will be a fee associated with the online service depending on how customers want to pay their bills, which will range from setting up reoccurring payments to paying by credit card or e-checks.
Staff members will continue to maintain the drive-thru window at the department's Central Avenue office for those who want to pay their combination sanitary sewer/stormwater/trash bills in person, she said.
The online bill paying is the most recent effort Smolar's office has made to increase its efficiency and improve service to residents, she said.
In addition to giving up take-home vehicles and reducing staff by 1.5 positions, one of the biggest cost savings has been taking on the collection of overdue bills in-house, Smolar said.
Collections work previously was done by an attorney, she said.
"We don't think anybody wants to be late on their bills, but in this economy, sometimes people have to choose. We are giving them a chance to make arrangements to pay the bills if they are past due and give them the ability to catch up and start fresh," she said.
She said the department collected about $300,000 in past due bills last year. When staff members took on the task themselves, they initially sent out 869 letters. That number is down to less than 300.
Smolar said users are sent a letter when they are 90 days and $100 past due. They are given 10 days to pay or to make arrangements before a second letter is sent. A third warning letter tells the customer a lien will be placed on the property.
"Our biggest cost savings is not hiring an attorney to do this," she said.
A new vacate policy awaiting approval also is expected to improve efficiency.
Currently, those who have vacated a property for the winter or some other reason can apply for a waiver of fees. It was up to residents to contact the department when they returned to the home. The office maintained paper records of the vacates.
Through the recent distribution of the new trash and recycling totes, it was found that about 400 homes were receiving services without paying their bills.
Smolar said staff members will be installing software that will be able to track vacates and automatically turn billing back on after a designated time period.
"We are basically like any other business. We try to operate as cost efficient as possible to meet the needs of the citizens," Smolar said. "We will continue to streamline costs and maintain operating at optimum levels."