Billing efficiencies ruffle some Juneau feathers

Posted: Wednesday, January 23, 2002

About the eighth of every month, Juneau residents open their mailboxes to find a handful of utility bills.

Recently, however, Waste Management decided to bill customers quarterly - every three months - instead of monthly. This meant that suddenly there was a garbage bill of more than $70 facing the average homeowner. Other utilities, however, do not plan to follow suit.

"It was a business decision," said Waste Management Division Manager Kirk Duncan. "We had about 35,000 customers in Anchorage on three-months-in-advance billing, and 6,500 customers in Juneau on one-month-in-advance billing. We needed to clean that (disparity) up."

Waste Management made the decision in September and gave customers three months notice. "We went over and above on notification and were sensitive to the issue," Duncan said.

Waste Management had been billing its Anchorage customers on the three-month cycle since 1996. It decided Juneau customers should follow suit when the Regulatory Commission of Alaska required them to file a statewide tariff consolidating all refuse companies.

"We had to bring all the companies under one tariff," Duncan said. "It doesn't mean one rate, but it defines what is a can, what is a Dumpster. Previously, all the companies had different language in their tariffs. Now we had to adopt universal definitions."

Since the new billing cycle went into effect earlier this month, Duncan has not heard from consumers directly, but has heard from their representatives including Sen. Kim Elton, Rep. Bill Hudson and the Juneau Assembly that "senior citizens" and people on "fixed incomes" find this billing, which covers a minimum of three cans picked up weekly, troublesome.

Because of customer reactions, Waste Management has proposed introducing a single-can rate in Juneau. "We hope that proposal will be passed within 45 days," Duncan said Tuesday morning. The rate would be about $11.20 a month.

Other utility companies say they won't follow Waste Management's quarterly billing practice.

"No, we don't plan to change our billing cycle," said David Stone, vice president of consumer affairs for Alaska Electric Light & Power, "because energy use is such a big part of people's bills. We think it would be a burden. And you can't bill in advance until the meter has been read, so it doesn't make any sense."

The city of Juneau bills homeowners and businesses for water and sewer.

"Two years ago we discussed going to alternative cycles other than monthly - such as advance billing - in order to reduce the work flow associated with billing," said Craig Duncan, city finance director. "What we decided to do was the same as AEL&P has done: Allow direct payment from checking accounts."

This kind of payment is called Automatic Clearing House, or ACH. Banks are furnished with a list of their customers who have authorized automatic payments, and on a specific day, deductions are made and the amounts forwarded to the city. Since this option was offered about a year ago, about 15 percent of the city's 7,500 utilities customers have opted for it.

Like AEL&P, the city did not want to overwhelm customers with large bills. "With the price of water and sewer averaging $55, two or three months would make the bill so large it would be onerous, so we decided not to do that," Duncan said.

Although it has not changed its billing cycle, the city has saved paperwork and postage by another method - allowing customers to receive bills by e-mail.

"They get an electronic bill rather than a paper one," Duncan said. "The advantage is that you can be traveling and still access your e-mail and see what your payment should be."

Going to bills every other month represents the largest savings for the biller, he said, because it saves 50 percent of the workload. Going to quarterly billing saves only 50 percent more.

Like the city, GCI has decided not to issue multi-month bills for its long-distance telephone and cable TV residential customers, said David Morris, company spokesman. "One or the other goes to most of the households in Juneau, but we don't plan to change our billing cycles."

Since GCI sends bills to customers all over the state, it has separated them into six cycles, or batches, one generated every five days of the month. "It would be a mess if we sent them all at the same time, and got back payments all at the same time," Morris said.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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