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You may soon be able to pay city utility bills by speaking with computer

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POSTED February 1, 2010 1:39 a.m.

Technology will soon make it less frustrating – and quicker – to pay municipal utility bills by phone as well as improve the efficiency of municipal staff.

The Manteca City Council will consider spending almost $118,000 on an interactive voice response system for the finance department when they meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Civic Center, 1001 W. Center St.

The money for the phone system will not impact the general fund that has a deficit projected at about $3.8 million for the fiscal year starting July 1. The cost is being divided between the water, sewer, and solid waste enterprise accounts that are ratepayer driven since the billing is for those three municipal services.

The finance department presently has five customer service representatives. During peak times, three additional staff members provide back-up assistance. Even so, there are peak periods where more than 20 customers are queued in the phone system waiting to make payments.

The interactive voice system would allow those customers to make credit card payments on their accounts without directly talking to staff. That, in turn, would significantly reduce the time they are on hold.

Part of the problem city staff is facing is the fact less people are mailing in payments and instead are waiting for the last possible minute to pay their bills due to the economy.

A year ago the City of Manteca would issue 1,000 final notices to cut off water service for non-payment of municipal utility bills. Of those, 200 actually ended up with service turned off.

Today there are 1,800 final notices mailed each month. City workers end up turning water service off to 400 homes in any given month.

The current delinquency rate of 5.10 percent is costing the city’s water, sewer, and solid waste accounts $149,350.16 a year. That is up from $87,945.99 from the previous year. And with unemployment at 15 percent in Manteca coupled with the continuing foreclosure mess, Finance Director Suzanne Mallory is predicting this year’s delinquency rate could hit 10 percent and cost ratepayers who pay on time as much as $300,000 since they ultimately will have to absorb the losses Manteca is forced to write off.

The city works with struggling households to avoid water shut-off whenever possible.

Manteca is also making it more difficult for deadbeat renters to run up a water bill, not pay it, and then open a new service under the name of someone else that is living in the house.

The city is now requiring a renter’s agreement when water servcie is opened. That means to open a service, you must have a copy of the rental agreement. That will make it harder to simply shift the account into someone else’s name after it goes delinquent for several months unless a new rental agreement has been signed.

The surge in late payments that in turn triggered lines that often reach out to the parking lot prompted the city to remodel the finance department  so more customers could be accommodate inside instead of standing outside in bad weather.

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