Utility customers and Zephyrhills city staffers can breathe a collective sigh of relief: For the next year at least, MuniBilling will continue to handle the city’s utility billing.
That means customers will be able to continue to view their water consumption and make payments, without switching to another company.
The Zephyrhills City Council made that official announcement during the council’s Nov. 9 meeting.
Last November, the city had to change its water billing provider after it was informed that Fathom Water Management was going out of business. The notice came from the Arizona-based company in a Saturday email — telling the city it had three weeks to find a different provider to service utility customers.
The bombshell — or what city officials describe “a disastrous day” — forced the city to scramble for a new utility billing provider, subsequently requiring the complete overhaul of billing system software and repository information, as well as bill printing.
“It was quite an undertaking,” Zephyrhills Finance Director Ted Beason recalled. “I used to be thin and had a lot of hair before that process, so it’s had a toll on the staff.”
By December, the city was able to land with MuniBilling, who converted the city’s billing data to their software and offered call center services within a period of days.
Customers were able to provide their same username and account number on MuniBilling as they did on Fathom. Also, the company combined 1,700 irrigation accounts on the same bill as household meters.
That first-year agreement with MuniBilling came with an $812,000 price tag, or $5.99 per active account (roughly 11,300) for 12 months.
Now, in continuing the relationship for a second year, MuniBilling services will drop to $541,000 ($3.99 per account for 12 months), yielding a savings of $271,000 for the city, the finance director says.
“We’re now in a position where we can take advantage of our second year of our contract with MuniBilling,” Beason explained to the Zephyrhills City Council. “We think it’s worth the second year of the contract, and we think they performed well enough that we’d like to push forward.”
Beason highlighted other program benefits, too.
The firm’s associated integrated customer portal — WaterSmart — allows customers to make online payments, set up autopay and review data on their water consumption. The program also sends email and text notifications to customers on abnormal water usage. A meter showing 20 gallons of water being used in the middle of the night may signal a leaking toilet, for example.
Beason called the feature “a total win” as it allows customers to resolve a potential issue before seeing major effects on the following month’s bill.
“It’s very much the case of, we don’t want to produce boomerang bills. As we notice the problem, reach out to the customer and try to head off the problem before it really becomes expensive for them,” explained Beason.
However, the finance director acknowledged there were some hiccups in the early days of the MuniBilling partnership, including: inexperience of the firm’s call center staff; software that didn’t smoothly handle old customer move-outs and new customer move-ins; and, deposit refunds requiring a lot of effort by city staff.
But, Beason noted the company in June added “a really good project manager” who “seems to be in tune with not repeating the same mistakes more than once, and goes ahead and gets that taken care of quickly.”
Zephyrhills City Manager Billy Poe also went to bat in favor of renewing MuniBilling’s contract.
Poe told council members he’d “highly recommend against” changing gears and searching for a new water billing provider.
If that was to be the case, Poe, perhaps half-jokingly, said: “We probably will not have a finance director or many utility employees,” referencing the stress and workload involved in transitioning from one utility billing firm to another.
Other city staffers didn’t have to put up much of an argument, as council members likewise expressed their satisfaction with the MuniBilling and WaterSmart system.
Said Councilwoman Jodi Wilkeson: “For me personally, I think that the bill is easier to read. I think that it’s pretty consistent when it arrives and for the general customer experience, overall, has been pretty positive.”
Council President Charles Proctor also shared upbeat comments about MuniBilling, noting he has not received many complaints from utility customers.
Efforts to modernize the city’s water billing system had been in the works for some time.
Prior to signing up with Fathom more than five years ago, Zephyrhills leaders expressed the need to shift to state-of-the-art, cloud-based technology that can monitor for leaks and spikes in water usage, and provide more accuracy and consistency in meter readings and billings.
Confidence in the city’s billing system had eroded in recent years because of inaccurate meter readings, broken meters, leaks that went undiscovered and other problems.
Residential and commercial customers then reported incorrect billing, including a $100,000 error in the Zephyrhills bottled water account.
Yet, even the initial Fathom rollout led to numerous complaints from residents, who saw their bills go up after installation of new bar meters provided more precise water-usage readings, finding leaks the old system did not detect.
Published November 18, 2020