Springfield City Utilities employs a variety of different types of meters to measure natural gas usage for customers across its service area. (Photo by Jack McGee)

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More than 500 Springfield City Utilities customers will receive letters about their water or gas meters in the next couple of weeks. Those letters will also contain estimates on how much money for past usage is owed.

City Utilities Chief Customer Officer Brent Baker briefed the Springfield City Utilities Board on a major metering and billing issue at a meeting Dec. 1.

Baker said there are 389 natural gas customers and 120 water customers whose meters have shown zero use for spans from 3-18 months. The range of money those customers now owe the utility provider, Baker said, is anywhere from $3 to $2,000, and he estimated the average is about $900.

“When you’re dependent on hardware or mechanical equipment, just like at home with your washer or dryer, you realize sometimes hardware is going to have issues,” Baker said.

City Utilities’ customer agreement for utility service has a clause for how undercharge issues due to mechanical failures are handled.

City Utilities suggests customers check their own usage to make sure they are being charged for some water and gas use. About 90 percent of homes in Springfield are on smart meters, which can give users daily usage reports through City Utilities’ website. CU offers “My Account” on its web-based platform and through the My Account app for smartphones.

City Utilities plans to delay the start of collections until March 2023, and customers can make payment arrangements for up to 24 months.

“Customers will get twice as long as the error occurred to pay it back, and so if it was 12 months on a residential customer that that usage was zero, we’ll give them up to 24 months, and in this situation, even doing a case-by-case flexibility,” Baker said. “We regularly connect customers with assistance agencies to help them find resources to manage utility bills, and we have a great community that has a lot of resources available.”

Usage gaps can be easy to miss

City Utilities President Gary Gibson said City Utilities also bears responsibility as the utility provider when unchecked use goes undetected for long periods of time. 

“It’s disappointing that in this particular case, we had some drop through the cracks,” Gibson said. “It’s not that we weren’t catching any of them, we caught some, but this detailed review that we went through as we tried to make sure that we drove towards excellence in that group, really found that we have a group here that we kind of have mashed together at this time.”

City Utilities board member Scott Bratcher believes customers are unlikely to have any sympathy for the utility provider or the people who work for it.

“We have a responsibility to go backward and collect, but the customer isn’t going to see that through the same lens,” Bratcher said. “All of a sudden, they’re victimized from a budget perspective.”

A lower-cost utility, water, can go undetected by some users who don’t read their bills closely.

“Water is such a small part of the bill,” Gibson said. “Especially for those customers that are on paperless billing, you get a text that says ‘Your bill is X dollars,’ well, if your electric, and your gas, and your sewer are on there, but not your water, you might not see the sensitivity of that if you’re not looking at your bill.”

Sometimes, a long-term customer’s patterns of use can change if they make lifestyle changes.

“An example of that would be somebody that may be a snowbird this year, and is in Arizona during winter time, and has zero use on a water meter,” Gibson said. “Maybe they’re not this year, and a meter has stopped.”

Springfield City Utilities uses an array of different water and gas meters made by different manufacturers across its service area. The blend includes meters that have been upgraded to advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) or “smart meters,” but customers may opt out of the AMI replacement program.

“The equipment that we noticed here is a mix of both smart meters and vintage meters that have not yet been changed out,” Baker said. “Even the water and gas meters — some of those are old meters that have smart devices added to them.”

Responsibility and fairness

Most natural gas meters in Springfield are “smart meters,” equipped to be read by computer rather than by a human meter reader. (Photo by Jack McGee)

The past bill coming due for 500-plus customers is calculated based on estimated usage, based on historical usage data for a customer at the location where they are buying water or gas. City Utilities will not penalize customers for any water or gas usage that occurred before they bought or started renting a house or apartment.

“If, for example, a customer has lived as a tenant for three months, and maybe the premises has had zero usage for 12 months, we will use that three months for them,” Baker said. “They will not be responsible for the premises, they will be responsible for their portion.”

Baker said it’s important for affected customers to contact City Utilities to speak with a representative who can walk them through their billing situation.

“We know that everybody in America works with a monthly budget and that utility bills are a key part of everyone’s monthly budget,” Baker said. 

City Utilities board member Clif Smart, the president of Missouri State University, didn’t think the money that could be recovered was significant enough for City Utilities to face the negative impact of the recovery effort. Baker, however, said it could be argued that using reserve funds or otherwise spending money from its existing budget would create a situation where some customers would be indirectly paying other customers’ bills.

“If it’s our fault, I would be inclined to ask City Council to waive the collection for the accounts,” Smart said. “We’ve got millions of dollars of reserves to cover what is a very small amount. I mean, I would be included to say, ‘This is on us and we’re working so that it doesn’t happen again.’ I think the potential negative media and customer coverage doesn’t justify trying to collect a small amount of money.”

Board member Steve Edwards, the former CEO of CoxHealth, spoke in favor of allowing customers to pay for the past water and gas usage over time in installments.

“I think this is a generous approach and fair,” Edwards said. “These customers are getting essentially a no-interest loan — and I’m sure they’re not thanking you for that — but, you know, if you go too generous, then the rest of the customers are making up the difference.”

Numbers and policy

Between water, gas and electric service, Springfield City Utilities has more than 300,000 meters to get readings from per month, and less than 0.2 percent of those meters require adjustment or replacement per year. That’s about 600 meters. Less than half of those cases lead to bill corrections.

“City Utilities investigates thousands of high and low usage anomalies, and only adjusts, on average, 250 stopped natural gas, water and electric meters,” Baker said. “In 2022, a team was developed within the customer operations areas to focus on improving the process and timeliness of billing.”

Baker said in 2016, City Utilities removed a check procedure from its billing process that would have sped up the utility’s ability to detect stopped meters. That procedure has been restored in 2022 as the result of the customer operations team’s work.

“That process change makes it to where all of the reports are being shown to those coworkers to see it

In 2019, City Utilities adopted a policy to limit the collection of fees for unpaid usage to a maximum span of 12 months. A stopped meter doesn’t mean water or gas is shut off, it simply means that the water or gas is not counted and billed for.

“When meters stop reading, the customer will still get the water flowing through to their home, or the gas or the electric flowing through to their home, but their bill won’t show any of that usage,” Baker said. “They won’t know that they’re not necessarily getting billed if they’re not paying attention.”

Customers who automatically pay their bills or don’t otherwise check their usage on a monthly basis could go weeks or even months without picking up a meter that’s not working, Baker said.

Rance Burger

Rance Burger is the managing editor for the Daily Citizen. He previously covered local governments from February 2022 to April 2023. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 17 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@sgfcitizen.org or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger