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Cuyahoga Falls City Council hosts airing of grievances related to utility billing issues

by Steve Wiandt | reporter Published: September 11, 2016 12:00 AM
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Cuyahoga Falls -- Attendees of City Council's Sept. 6 meeting seemed to be observing Festivus as one by one they participated in the airing of grievances.

While it was not the time to mark any holidays introduced on "Seinfeld," it was an opportunity for residents to voice their concerns about their utility bills.

During the summer, many residents contacted city officials with various concerns about their utility bill: Some felt the amount of their bill was incorrect, others had received multiple bills in a short period of time and still more had not received a utility bill in a long period of time.

And while the mayor, service director and several department heads provided explanations during the Sept. 6 public affairs committee meeting, not everyone in the audience was satisfied.

But Council's first day back after the August hiatus was far from a holiday. People were upset. Voices were raised and negative feelings were shared both in prepared remarks at the podium and spontaneous outbursts of doubt and ridicule in the audience.

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About 200 people were in attendance.

In mid-June, the city began switching over to a new utility billing software because the old system was "obsolete," a city news release said.

"There's a little anger going on with the folks here, and me too," said former councilman Terry Mader. "This should have never happened." Mader said when he worked for AT&T and the company was upgrading a system that affected phone service to its customers "we never disconnected the old systems until the new systems were totally bug-free. To me, this is totally unacceptable / that old system should have been running parallel with the new [system]."

Mayor Don Walters said there was an issue with three separate software programs that didn't communicate with each other. Walters said one of those software programs is related to automatic meter readers. The readings were not coming in automatically, he said, so meter readers had to manually gather the meter readings of 4,000 customers.

"We had to work out that problem," Walters said. "Once we got the reads we could send the bills out; however, now we're delayed in the next billing cycle, and the next billing cycle." Walters said there are six billing cycles.

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The delays caused a number of discrepancies in the number of days in the billing cycles, he said.

"I'm not happy," Walters said. "You expect a bill every 30 days, like I do. Every 30 days you should be getting a bill you can plan on and budget." Walters said some people didn't get a bill one month, then got two the following month.

"[The cause] wasn't one thing that we could point to," Walters said. "It was the communication of all the softwares that did not work as they did when they were tested." The mayor said the city is working with the software companies and "it looks like we have the bugs out."

"I know what you're feeling right now / I understand your frustration. I understand your confusion," the mayor said, adding anyone could meet with him and others following the meeting to look at their bills. Several people walked next door and met with city officials.

"I apologize this happened," Walters said. "We will work through it, but we have to do it individually / We're going to help you get through this."

Walters said Summit County is going to conduct an audit of the utility billing department's records.

Victor Pallotta (R-3), chairman of the public affairs committee, asked why the rollover to new billing software was done during the hottest months of the year. Walters said no one anticipated any problems.

Michael Dougherty, the city's electric utility superintendent, explained the formula for the PCF or power cost factor, the city has to pay American Municipal Power. According to Dougherty, the PCF is up and Cuyahoga Falls Electric customers are paying more for power than First Energy customers.

He also said July and August were extremely hot and that showed up in people's electric bills. He further noted 15 meters were tested in the city and were "spot-on" accurate.

John Konich, director of IT services, explained testing was run before the city went live with the new billing system, but the testing was not parallel testing where both systems are run simultaneously. He said the city went live June 13.

"Unfortunately, several issues occurred during the first week that did not show up in testing," Konich said. "This caused significant delays in billing cycles."

"When the original delays occurred, as a result of the manual checks we did on the bills, that had a domino effect on subsequent billing cycles, to ensure accuracy for residents," said Zachary Jones, the utility billing manager.

Jones said to date his department is still offering evening and weekend appointments to go over bills with residents, and voluntary and mandatory overtime has been authorized.

Jones said he was never involved with parallel testing when he worked for First Energy and this was his first experience installing new billing software.

Council President Mary Ellen Pyke (R-2) noted in 2011 when purchase of the new software was approved, the city assured Councilmember Carol Klinger (R-At Large), the finance committee chair, parallel testing would be done.

Resident Ed Sturkey of Sackett Hills Drive said when he worked at North Akron Savings Bank they always ran parallel tests before switching over to a new software program.

Susan Schirra of Hillbrook Drive said her utility bill is paid by a bank draft. And she called for help a week and a half ago and still has not received a call back.

Pyke expressed concern that residents who pay by bank draft could see more money leaving their accounts than expected, and some could be fined for overdrafts.

While acknowledging the city is willing to work with residents who can't pay their bill in full all at once, residents questioned being put on a payment plan for a bill that they believe is incorrect to begin with.

"I haven't heard anything yet that tells me any of this has been figured out, straightened out or anyone has a clue what's going on here," said city resident Dave Sebastian. "Some say it's been fixed, some say it's not been fixed. I've got a bill for $900 setting at my house / My bill should be $250 to $300 even with high electric this year."

Aaron Sturkey of Victoria Street said he recently received a "high bill" and an explanation that this summer's heat has been the issue. Sturkey said he knew the bill was wrong because his central air conditioner was not working at the time. After he fixed his air conditioner and received a new bill, he said it was lower than before.

Another resident said he knows of two residents who live in subsidized housing on Prange Drive who were evicted from their homes because their power was shut off by the city when they couldn't pay their bills. He also stated he was worried his daughter would also be evicted.

Email: swiandt@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9420

Twitter: @SteveWiandt_RPC


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Momofeveryone Sep 16, 2016 9:20 PM

I now am paying my bill in person on the first of the month. With cash. While dragging my whole brood of sticky, noisy, and some days whiny, kids. Hopefully my small disturbance during the day will satisfy my ire on the cost I encured when the city over drafted my account by $185.00 and resulted in several frantic phone calls between my bank and my mortgage company. (Shout out to Wells Fargo and Huntington, stopped payments and didn't cost me an additional $200 in fees)