Winchester Dealing With Utility Problems Left Over From Feb. 2021 Polar Vortex Price Spike

By Benjamin Cox on January 8, 2022 at 6:39am

The City of Winchester is still dealing with the fall out of the natural gas price spike from last year.

Mayor Rex McIntire explained to the Winchester City Council on Wednesday night that some people who pay a particular amount each month (known as Level Pay) for natural gas usage have struggled with the 3% extra cost from the February 2021 spike. The city approved a plan in March last year that allowed residents and businesses to repay their February 2021 bill in 33 interest-free installments to get the outstanding bill paid off.

McIntire says some on the level pay option are struggling to meet the 3% extra cost: “I just want people to know if they don’t understand what we had to do [in March 2021 with the installments ordinance], come in to City Hall. We’ve got people that will talk to you and explain to you what the situation is. We also have a problem with some people, and it might be somebody on Level Pay…I’m not picking on anybody in particular…but they don’t make their Level Pay monthly payment and then they wonder why their bill balloons up. I mean we can explain that to you and how that works, too. I know Level Pay works well for a lot of people but for some people, to me, it’s not working; and I know it has created a problem with the 3% payment to try and get caught up.”

Alderman Lawrence Coultas noted that only 4 citizens have been meeting the 3% extra obligation on their Level Pay bill each month. Last year, McIntire said that over 200 customers in Winchester opted to pay the larger February 2021 bill in full.

Compounding issues further was the billing system that the city used having a miscalculation issue. Coultas says he came to City Hall and called the company in an effort to get the problem straightened out: “We had a major problem a month and a half ago. Everybody on Level Pay, their balance was messed up, so we got ahold of Locust and explained to them that we had a problem. We also explained to them that when we went through several bills, the amount that was messed up was the amount of their September bill in every case. It had to do something with those customers being billed twice or something. At any rate, Locust finally got it straightened out and we got them all okayed, but everybody that was on Level Pay was messed up.”

Coultas says that no one should be on Level Pay right now in the city save for the 4 people who have made their 3% obligation according to the rules of the level pay option: “The reason being is that the ordinance says, and I realize that February was a unique case, but the ordinance that was drawn up for Level Pay for Winchester stated that once you were delinquent on any amount on a past bill, you were no longer on Level Pay. Well, last February’s bill threw everybody off, so everybody’s behind. If you look at the ordinance, the one’s that paid the full amount could have stayed on Level Pay and I don’t think there were a whole lot that did that.”

Coultas went on to say that the Level Pay system itself needs reworked completely and refigured for new usage numbers for the city’s customers. None on the council could recall on Wednesday night the last time the refiguring of average usage was done. Coultas says the refiguring needs to be done, according to the city’s ordinance, at the end of each fiscal year.

Coultas also thinks the city should change how it notifies customers of delinquent payments. He says currently that the city doesn’t have a way to distinguish between someone who is frequently late and someone who misses a utility payment for the first time ever, and everyone gets a notice stuck on their front door if they are delinquent: “If you are delinquent for the first time in who knows how many years and you’ve paid your bill religiously and never been a problem and all of a sudden one month, you miss a payment…you know, first time maybe in three years, we still go put a notice on your door. I understand why somebody would be upset about that, but how do we distinguish between that and somebody that’s been delinquent several times? To me, there is a difference. If you are delinquent in the first time in maybe three or four years or forever, I’d rather they get a phone call that first time instead of putting a delinquent notice on their door.” Coultas says the notice is often an embarrassment and he understands that it often spurs people to get their bill paid, but he believes it would be more courteous for a City Worker to call or check on the person first before taping a notice on their door.

Mayor Rex McIntire noted that some of the late payments problems can be attributed to late deliveries from the Post Office. Someone in attendance noted that White Hall had recently faced similar issues of mailed out bills not arriving to customers ahead of their due date. McIntire issued a warning and a stern reminder to the public about their utility bill due date in Winchester: “If you live in Winchester and you are on our utilities, you are going to get a bill or be billed whether you receive it in the mail or not…you have a bill that is going to be due the 25th of each month. If you don’t get [your bill] in the mail, you better be calling up to City Hall to find out what happened because we are sending them out.”

McIntire also said that he had recently spoke with Ron Ragan of UGM saying that December bills and likely January’s bills will be higher than normal because of cold temperatures, but the city’s gas provider had hedged enough natural gas in the summer and fall to keep prices from spiking to the record high that happened last year.

The council came to a consensus to add a note on next month’s utility bills to remind customers about the 3% overage they are charged from the February 2021 spike. A look into billing procedures including adding an electronic option online may be explored in a future meeting.