The Bell administration wants to start online billing for the approximately 500,000 water customers in Toledo and surrounding communities in order to cut down the time people spend waiting on hold to speak with a city employee.
Also Tuesday, Mayor Mike Bell announced on Twitter and in a statement that he reduced the need for most customers to pay a $200 security deposit for water accounts. “Now only those [with] poor histories will pay deposits,” the mayor wrote on the social media Web site.
The cost to start letting people view and pay bills online will be about $250,000, said Public Utilities Director Dave Welch.
“This will take more people off the phones, so I see it as a huge plus for customer service,” Mr. Welch said.
The $250,000 is contained within a $563,000 spending request for maintenance of the utilities department computer system.
It was discussed by City Council during its agenda-review meeting.
The proposed customer billing invoice system upgrade would allow customers to view bills online, pay bills online, view consumption, manage addresses, manage bank accounts, and ask questions regarding accounts.
In 2011, the average wait time to speak with a water department representative was 22 minutes and 27 seconds. That was cut down to 12 minutes and 21 seconds this year, Mr. Welch said.
“That's roughly 45 percent decrease but we believe even 12 minutes is a long time to be on the phone,” Mr. Welch said.
He said the online billing would cut the wait time because many callers are simply inquiring the amount they owe or want an explanation of bills.
The department's call center hours were 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. weekdays. They were increased to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., which helped reduce the average wait time.
Twenty-one city employees work in the call center.
Councilmen Rob Ludeman and Lindsay Webb were among those on council supporting the idea.
Mr. Ludeman said many water customers have asked for the city to allow online bill-paying.
Megan Meyer Foos, Toledo Board of Realtors' chief executive officer, lauded the online billing idea.
“I think online billing would be huge,” Ms. Meyer Foos said.
As far as the water security deposits, those had been required for all commercial accounts and all new customers without established payment records, as well as for those whose service was terminated for lack of payment.
“The policy revision was recommended by the [Department of Public Utilities] Advisory Committee, which has weighed in on the deposit issue since its inception in November and now meets quarterly to provide feedback to DPU on other programs and procedures,” said a statement from Mr. Bell's office.
“Although charging deposits is a common utility practice, it is much more business-friendly not to charge them to people who have qualified for mortgages or purchased rental or commercial properties,” Ms. Meyer Foos said in a statement sent by the mayor's office. “We’re pleased the Bell administration responded to our concerns.”
The Bell administration also asked council to consider spending $104,000 to create a bar coding and inventory management system for city property.
Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat said the system would allow city departments to monitor equipment such as leaf blowers, weed-whackers, and lawn mowers. TCMax Systems of Sylvania was lowest bidder for the contract, city records said.
In other business, Mayor Bell selected Mark Urrutia, agent and registered representative of Urrutia Insurance Agency/Skyway Financial Group LLC., as his next appointment to the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority. He would replace Margarita De Leon, whose term expired July 31. Councilman Adam Martinez asked to hold the appointment until after the mayoral election this year.