News : Revised Customer Service Manual Draft Released
Elizabeth City, NC, USA, Sept 4, 2017 -- The City of Elizabeth City has released a draft of its revised utility customer service manual.
Some highlights include: Immediate cutoffs for meter tampering or returned payments, a revised grievance process, and setting a flat amount for residential customers' initial deposits.
City Manager Rich Olson presented the draft manual to the city council last week. The council did not approve the document, but voted 4-3 for city councilors and Mayor Joe Peel to find citizens to review it from both a residential and business perspective. Councilors Michael Brooks, Johnnie Walton and Darius Horton were opposed.
The customer service manual was last updated in 1998, so the council agreed earlier this year it was due for some attention. In presenting the document for discussion, Olson said he and city staff had added definitions and tried to make the document clearer.
The 35-page document does include numerous minor changes. However, it also has new provisions for how the city cuts off customers who have "returned payments" – the draft uses that catch-all term instead of "returned checks" – or tamper with meters.
The city’s current manual provides that customers are entitled to receive 10 days' notice before disconnection, whether through phone call, written notice or a door hanger. It also states the city won't cut off customers for non-payment after 4 p.m. the day prior to a holiday or weekend – the intent being to minimize the time customers go without service. However, the new language states those protections don't apply to customers with returned payments or who tamper with meters. A new provision states the city may cut off customers with returned payments after 48 hours' notification.
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The draft manual also changes how the city grants leeway to people who could be harmed if their utilities are cut off. It specifies customers have to have "medical alert documentation" on file with the city to delay disconnection, rather than simply accommodating people who are elderly or handicapped. The agreement also provides that, while the city will make extra efforts to contact people before disconnection, they're ultimately still subject to disconnections.
Notably, many of those changes follow a high-profile spat between the city and utility customer Sarah Ownley, who was disconnected this summer despite a general waiver on disconnections at the time. In an unusual press release, the city defended its decision to cut off Ownley on a Friday afternoon – at or after 4 p.m., depending on who's asked – for a returned payment; Ownley and other critics argued the city had violated its policies and was effectively retaliating against a strong critic.
The revised manual also changes the city's grievance policy for customers wishing to contest their bills. The manual maintains provisions specifying a customer shall have a "reasonable opportunity," defined as the time from when they get their bill until the date of their disconnection, to contest inaccurate bills. Customers would also continue to take those grievances to the city's customer service manager, and then to the city council; the new manual would make the city manager the second authority to appeal to.
That said, utility customers have a First Amendment right to address the council about their bills regardless of whether they speak with the city manager first.
During last week's meeting, only Councilor Tony Stimatz provided detailed feedback on the manual. While praising the work city staff have done so far, he argued the document focused more on protecting the city than its customers.
"It seems like we did a lot of work on making sure that we weren't going to get sued or yelled at for not doing something, but we really didn't take a good, hard look at how we can make this better for our customers," Stimatz said.
Stimatz also called for the city to solicit feedback from "some of our toughest critics," such as members of the "Enough is Enough EC" Facebook group, on how to make the manual easier to use and understand. He moved for each member of council, including the mayor, to find two people who could review the manual, one from a residential perspective and one from a business perspective. Mayor Pro-Tem Anita Hummer seconded the motion.
Brooks and Walton each opposed the motion for different reasons. Brooks said the city once had a "personnel committee" that was disbanded for "micromanaging the city manager," and he expressed concerns that the panel reviewing the manual might similarly overstep its bounds.
Walton said he opposed the motion because a new city council will soon be in place – election day is Oct. 10 – and a new council should handle reviewing the manual.
Councilor Ray Donnelly also expressed concerns about bringing in citizens to review the first draft of the new manual; the document should be closer to finished before people review it, he suggested.
Stimatz clarified he was trying to define how, not when, the city will bring in citizens for feedback. He set no time table for when the review panel's work should start, he noted.
That persuaded Donnelly, who voted with Stimatz and Hummer. With Brooks, Walton and Horton opposed, Mayor Joe Peel was allowed to vote to break the tie. He favored Stimatz's idea. Absent from last week's meeting were Councilors Jean Baker and Rickey King.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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