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City sees rise in unpaid utility bills

A spike in Medford customers who don’t pay their utility fees after a problem-plagued billing system rolled out last year has worried city officials.

“There are 802 customers who have not paid us since we separated,” said Lorraine Peterson, the city’s business manager.

The Medford Water Commission and the city created two different billing systems last year, which have caused confusion among customers and taken away the city’s best tool for getting someone to pay their bill: The city can no longer turn off the water, which used to prompt almost immediate payment.

“We don’t have the ability to shut off anything, so we don’t have a big stick,” Peterson said.

Each month, the city sends out bills for fees related to streets, sewers, storm drains, parks and public safety.

To get more customers to pay, the City Council last week agreed to explore options that could include issuing citations to property owners who don’t pay or to place liens on their properties.

The city now has 2,224 customers, or almost 10 percent of its 25,000 customers, who have not paid their bills for 90 days or more, adding up to $475,188 that is past due. As of July 16, 4,893 customers, mostly residential, had accumulated late fees at various times over the past year. Of these customers, 983 had as many as six or seven late fees over the past year.

Despite the increase in late payments or no payments, the city has managed to collect more fee revenue in 2013-2014 than in 2012-2013.

For sewer fees, the amount collected rose a little over half a percent to $3.4 million. Street fees jumped more than 5 percent to $8.1 million. Storm drain fees also went up more than 5 percent to $4.6 million. Parks got almost 1 percent more at $1.3 million. Public safety saw a 33-percent increase because the City Council raised rates to cover the new police and fire buildings, bringing in almost $1.5 million.

The city itself also has had difficulties with its new billing system. Because of a software glitch, the city of Canby had been receiving credit for some bills from Medford. Also, there have been delays in sending out the mail.

The city has waived many of the late fees since the past year, most because of problems with mail delivery. Also, late fees have been listed as “miscellaneous fees” on billing statements, which caused confusion among customers. The “miscellaneous fee” problem should be resolved this fall, Peterson said.

Currently, the city charges a $15 late fee, but the council will consider a proposal to reduce the late fee to $5 or 1 percent of the bill, whichever is greater.

Councilor Dick Gordon said the city’s 25-day window to pay utility bills may not be enough time, particularly for the elderly whose only income is their monthly Social Security check. He said the timing of the utility bill and the date of receipt of the Social Security check don’t always line up.

“We need to give people more time than just 25 days,” he said.

City officials say they want to weigh their options carefully because they have received many complaints about the new billing system over the past year.

“I get more calls about this than any other thing,” said council President Daniel Bunn.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.