Cuyahoga Falls -- A group of residents gathered last Sunday morning to share their testimonies. The meeting was not in a church, however, and the people were not confessing their faith.
Residents met outside of City Hall on Aug. 14 to share with officials their concerns about their utility bills.
City Service Director Eric Czetli said he and Theresa Hazlett, the deputy service director, met with approximately 30 residents who visited City Hall with billing questions. Citizens' contact information and individual inquiries were recorded, and "they were addressed by staff members early this week," Czetli told the Cuyahoga Falls News-Press on Aug. 17.
City Councilman Adam Miller (R-6), who arranged the meeting, told the Falls News-Press on Aug. 17 that residents were questioning the amount of their bills, saying, "/the billing cycles printed on the bills are not accurate. Some people had really long billing cycles, some people had really short billing cycles and some people had bills with a zero balance."
Miller said the billing cycle is normally four weeks. He said he could see on his bill it was for six weeks.
Meter readings have been accurate, according to Miller and Czetli.
"I am confident the meter readings are accurate," Czetli said. "We have tested a number of meters and we find them working correctly."
Meanwhile, city officials said they are continuing to work with residents on the issue.
"The administrative staff and employees are taking an all-hands-on- deck approach to help continue to work to resolve all resident questions and concerns as expeditiously as possible," Czetli said. "The customer service department responds to customer questions and concerns through phone calls, returned voice mails, emails, and face-to-face interactions."
Due to the increase in calls, the city has upgraded its phone system to help alleviate wait times, he said. And, additional staff has been reassigned to increase efficiency when answering voice mails and emails, Czetli added.
The city's utility billing office began using a new computer software system in June. Czetli said his staff discovered some technical issues which have been corrected by Innoprise, the software's vendor.
Before the rollout, the system was thoroughly tested, he said. However, they still encountered technical issues with the new software that disrupted the customers' regular billing cycles.
"As a result of longer billing cycles and consistent hot and humid temperatures, some customers have experienced larger than average utility bills," said Mayor Don Walters in a statement he released on his Facebook page Aug. 13. "I understand the inconvenience that this has caused for some customers and for that I sincerely apologize."
Representatives of Innoprise are scheduled to be in the billing office this week as the city continues to work with the vendor to make updates and improvements to the system, the service director said.
Walters said the city purchased the new software from Innoprise. He added that Innoprise has since been purchased by Harris ERP Inc., but the city is still dealing with Innoprise officials on the software issues.
According to Czetli, the software package was purchased for $250,000, he said, which included financials, HR Payroll, Planning/Zoning/Land Management, online citizen access, and the Customer Information System (CIS).
The package was purchased five years ago, and the technical support, implementation, and conversion were all included. The company continues to provide these services, he said.
More details of special meeting
"[On Sunday,] I gave a brief overview of the billing process, billing cycles, and frequently asked questions," Czetli said. "We stayed after [the meeting ended] to answer individual questions from customers."
Czetli noted this was not an official city meeting, so the city didn't record it.
In fact, Miller said, the meeting was originally a "spur-of-the-moment" fact-gathering mission he arranged after he had returned home from vacation to find his voicemail full of messages from people who had questions about their bills but couldn't get through by phone to the city's utility billing office. Many had still not gotten through by the end of the day Aug. 11, he said.
Miller arranged on social media an hour-long meet-up outside the billing office on Aug. 14 where he could take down residents' questions and contact information to forward to the billing department the next day.
Miller said the Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com learned about it and promoted it online and in print.
"It got bigger than I intended," he said.
Miller said Czetli and Hazlett volunteered to be on hand to hear concerns and take down the information needed to address issues in the following days. Miller said he believes the service directors addressed every issue raised.
Many people at the meeting were having difficulty reading their bills, Miller said, but Hazlett and Czetli were able to help them read and understand them. Some issues were more complex, he said, and had to wait until Monday when the billing office was open and accounts could be accessed.
"All in all [the Sunday meeting] was positive," Miller said. "I think Eric Czetli and Teresa Hazlett did a good job considering they couldn't access accounts. Most of the people who contacted me got the answers they were looking for.
"I think the mayor [Don Walters] is doing a good job," Miller added. "Obviously, if we would have seen this coming, we would have been out in front of it."
Czetli said his staff is taking appointments after hours and on weekends to best accommodate customers who cannot come in during business hours.
"We understand that some customers have been impacted by the system upgrade and we will not assess late fees and utilities will not be shut off," he said. "If residents have concerns about an inability to pay, they may contact the Utility Billing Department to discuss a payment plan."
"The system upgrade has been tedious, and I understand the inconvenience that this may have caused our customers," stated Walters in a news release issued Aug. 15. "The conversion problems have been fixed, and we are continuing to work to get everyone back on a 30-day billing cycle as the last measure to finalize the transition. As we continue to work through the final stages of the Utility Billing system conversion, please know that we remain committed to providing multiple avenues to address your questions and concerns."
How to get utility billing assistance
Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Walters said the city is offering extended business hours by appointment for residents who need utility billing assistance during evenings and weekends. To schedule an appointment, contact Utility Billing Manger Zack Jones at 330-971-8232 or Deputy Service Director Teresa Hazlett at 330-971-8240. Customers may continue to come to the Utility Billing office daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Additionally, the city has made upgrades to the phone system to help alleviate wait times due to increased call volume, according to a news release from the city. Customers will now be prompted to leave messages so that they do not have to continue to hold. The city asks that customers provide their name, contact information, and account number so that utility billing employees "may be of better assistance" when the call is returned, the news release stated. Calls will be returned within 24 hours or the next business day. Late fees will be waived and service will not be shut off for those that have been affected by the system conversion.
If customers have additional questions or concerns, they should contact the Utility Billing Department at 330-971-8250 or through email at UBDept@cityofcf.com.
Despite the efforts reported in the article, there is little evidence that the city is taking steps to mediate the circumstances. The message I got when I first phoned the Utility Dept was that my call would be returned within THREE business days - not acceptable to me as I had to address the problem on my day off - I can't take phone calls while I am at work. So, after an hour on hold, I went down to the address my issue in person. What did I see? A line out the door (I think there were 13 or 14 people plus the room next door was full) and only ONE service window open. Two other windows were unattended by any employee. So much for working extra hard to do whatever is possible so that residents can get their bills straightened out.