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Saint Robert staff offer help for those with unusually high heating bills
SAINT ROBERT, Mo. (Feb. 4, 2010) — Utility billing staff in St. Robert knew Monday would be a bad day when they came into the office and found 56 messages on their answering machine from residents questioning a note on utility bills saying their bills were overdue.

The city’s utility bills arrived in most residents’ mailboxes during the weekend when city hall was closed. Unfortunately for city staff and the utility customers, many and perhaps most of the city’s nearly 5,000 utility bills were printed and mailed with an incorrect notice that the bill was overdue.

That, combined with severely cold temperatures that sent some residential utility bills over a thousand dollars for the month, generated numerous questions about the bills.

“It was a constant flow of people coming in here,” said City Clerk Debra Adkins, who said the city’s highest residential bill was $1,009 for an older home that may not have adequate insulation.

The erroneous notice that customers hadn’t paid their bill led to questions about whether the high dollar amounts of the bills were also wrong. That, according to St. Robert financial director Edna Givens, isn’t the case.

“Believe me, we had meter readers going out there repeatedly checking any bills that looked too high,” Givens said.

The cold and snowy weather caused problems for the meter readers as well. In some cases, water and sewer bills received this month actually reflect more than one month of usage due to problems with reading those meters.

Alderman Gene Newkirk, who runs a local plumbing business, said he’s gotten numerous complaints including some from his own family.

“My mother in law in German and she lit me up this morning,” Newkirk said. “She told me, ‘I didn’t take any more s--- this month than last month.’”

City staff said they’re making every effort to verify the bills, but caution residents than despite the erroneous overdue notice, the amounts being billed are usually correct, partly because the electric rate also increased in January. St. Robert passed on a supplier-imposed electric rate increase of 0.85 cents per kilowatt hour of electric usage. Even though that’s less than one cent, the increased rates can add up quickly on a winter electric bill since customers using electric heat typically consume 2,000 to 3,000 kWh of electricity in an average winter month, and even more in cold weather conditions such as those seen in January.

So what caused the billing problems?

“We’re blaming this on our computer software,” Givens said.

According to Adkins, a computer technician came to city hall and by resetting a flag on the billing program, created the problem that wasn’t caught until the bills were printed.

“We were doing some changes on other stuff, but that shouldn’t have been changed,” Adkins said.

Adkins and Givens emphasized that city staff members work hard to accommodate customers facing an unexpectedly high bill. Rather than just failing to pay their bill, they said customers who have questions about the accuracy of their bill or who expect to have difficulty paying the bill should contact Lee Whitely by calling city hall at (573) 451-2000, ext. 1104.

“Every year when we have had high bills in the winter, we have tried to help make arrangements,” Adkins said.

Most commonly, that involves a request for an extension of time to pay the bill, but Adkins said she understands that some customers simply cannot pay.

“There are organizations in this community that will call and raise money for those who need help because we know who needs the help,” Adkins said. “There are organizations that will help such as the Salvation Army and Missouri Ozarks Community Action.”

Certain private individuals routinely help with utility bills as well, she said.

“The city of St. Robert goes out of its way to help people,” Givens said. “I’ve seen (city collector) Kim Fincher go out of her way to call churches and the ministerial alliance and others who can help.”

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