City asks residents to make utility payments online as it prepares new billing system

photo by: Journal-World photo illustration

A City of Lawrence utility bill is pictured in a photo illustration.

The City of Lawrence is asking residents to use its website for utility payments and transfers as it prepares to upgrade to a new utility billing system.

Though residents can still call the city to make utility transactions, the city has advised residents in social media posts this week that preparations to launch the new utility billing system are causing longer-than-normal wait times. Payments and changes can also still be made in person and via mail.

The city offered apologies to those who have experienced long hold times recently and requested that residents use the city’s website for certain transactions for the next two months to help cut down on wait times. The city’s utility website can be used to check current balances, make a one-time payment, set up automatic payments and to start, stop or transfer service and is available at lawrenceks.org/utility-billing/.

The new utility billing system is part of an approximately $10.9 million project to automate and improve the city’s water metering infrastructure and billing technology. Currently, city utility staff must read the city’s mechanical water meters manually and can only do one meter reading per month.

The city approved funding for the installation of automated water meters and related billing software as parts of its 2018 and 2019 budget. The software purchase and servicing make up about $1.9 million of the $10.9 million cost of the overall project, according to a previous city staff memo to the City Commission. The memo states that the new billing software will allow the city to integrate the utility customer billing system with the new automated meters, provide an improved online billing platform and implement a new water rate structure.

In 2016, the commission at that time — which is the same as today’s commission except that Mike Amyx held the seat now occupied by Jennifer Ananda — indicated at a work session that, in order to encourage water conservation, it was in favor of a new water rate structure that charged higher rates for higher usage. Though the commission didn’t finalize the rate structure, it approved the $10.9 million in funding for automated meters and new billing software considering that the new systems would allow for such a billing structure in the future.

The billing structure, as it was proposed in 2016, would create three ascending water rates based on a customer’s level of consumption. Though the exact parameters of each tier were not determined, customers who use significantly more water per month than the average household would be charged 10% to 15% more for those gallons that surpass average usage.

Commissioners asked again about the tiered billing structure during discussion of the 2020 budget — which included utility rate increases — and city staff said that structure could not be implemented until the new billing system was in place because the current billing software is incapable of supporting that structure. The commission would still need to discuss and approve the new billing structure if it were to go into effect.

The new billing system will allow customers to modify contact information; view detailed payment history; view water usage data; view or print bills; and make or schedule online payments, according to the city’s website.

The city advised that preparations to make the new billing system live will continue through October and that customers may experience longer than normal wait times throughout that time.

City spokesman Porter Arneill said staff is currently going through training on the new system and planning the steps necessary to convert customer accounts from the old system to the new one. He said because those tasks are in addition to their regular duties, staffers are less available to be on the phones.

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