WG&L board not sold on policy requests

Water, Gas & Light in Albany

Water, Gas & Light in Albany

ALBANY, Ga. -- Faced with a number of revenue-specific proposals at the first of what will become regular mid-month meetings, members of the Water, Gas & Light Commission board generally sided Thursday with maintaining the status quo.

The board voted to approve a proposal that will keep WG&L customers from tacking a $2 service charge onto online and credit card payments, as had been proposed by the commission's Finance department; tabled a vote that would have increased deposits for customers who pose a credit risk, and voted down a proposal to add a service charge to reconnection fees for customers whose service has been interrupted for non-payment.

"We're not taking these issues off the table," Commissioner Judith Corbett said after the meeting. "We just feel that we need to be sensitive to the needs of our ratepayers. I personally want to be fully informed before I make a decision that impacts our customers."

Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard, who serves as de facto chairwoman of the board, said she wants customers to be aware of proposed changes before they are implemented.

"I think it's important that Water, Gas & Light customers know and understand what any proposed changes might mean to them before we put those changes in place," Hubbard said. "Yes, we have to make business decisions as part of this board, but we also have an obligation to share as much information as possible with our customers."

WG&L's Finance Department had projected adding $90,000 in income to its bottom line during the current fiscal year by including a $2 service charge for online and credit card payments, much as other companies do. But Assistant General Manager for Administration Lee Hauesler said staff had found a way to save $65,000 of that total and suggested the commission forego the proposed charge in an attempt to encourage more electronic transactions.

"The idea is to try this for a year to see how it pans out," City Manager James Taylor, who also serves as interim WG&L general manager, said.

Hauesler also proposed utilizing credit ratings that would be provided by ONLINE Utility Exchange to determine deposit rates paid by new customers. Rather than the $100 maximum deposit paid by all new customers now, the new system would include a credit check that would assign customers a "green," "yellow" or "red" rating. Green customers would pay no deposit or a lower rate, while yellow-rated customers would pay average rates and red customers higher rates.

"(ONLINE Utility Exchange) recommends no charge for green customers, an average monthly bill ($246) for yellow customers and a two-month average ($492) for red customers," the WG&L assistant GM said. "We think jumping from a $100 maximum payment to a $500 payment would be extreme, so we're recommending a $50 deposit for green customers, $100 for yellow and $200 for red."

Before its members voted to table the matter for further discussion, Taylor reminded them: "Bad debt is costing us more than $1 million a year."

Taylor also proposed a new cut-off policy that would require customers to pay an additional $50 fee to resume interrupted service and a $75 fee for reconnection during weekends or holidays. The proposal also stipulated that late payments made before noon would ensure a return of service that day and payments made after noon would mean a return of service the next business day.

Taylor noted that since there were no current fees for service resumption, "regulars" constantly waited until service was interrupted to pay their bills.

Commissioner Bob Hutchinson suggested "going into the homes or bringing here" the habitual late payers, leading Taylor to remark, "I get the feeling that folks seem to think this is a social service. It isn't, it's a business. When my car payment is due, I have to pay it."

Hutchinson said after the meeting he wanted to be "fair" to customers.

Commissioner Chad Warbington offered a motion to approve the changes to the commission's cut-off policies, but it died for lack of a second.

Earlier the commission agreed by consensus to hold an additional business meeting each month.