The city of Lodi will be re-instituting due dates on utility bills after residents contacted city staff more than 1,000 times to complain about the new system.
In September Lodi changed its bills, from stating a specific due date to printing "due upon receipt" to conform with a 1991 city ordinance.
On Tuesday, the Lodi City Council discussed the due date change as well as other issues with the city's utility ordinance, including the time period between when a person does not pay their bill and when their electricity is shut off.
Mayor JoAnne Mounce said she is focused on one main change right now.
"I just want to get that due date on those bills quickly as possible. If it takes longer to actually enforce the ordinance or enact the ordinance, then I'm fine with that," Mounce said.
City spokesman Jeff Hood said the due dates will be added back to the bills as soon as possible.
Deputy City Manager Jordan Ayers was looking at the city code when he discovered that it said utility bills were "due upon receipt."
After the city made the change, Ayers said he talked with many customers who said they did not care when their bill was due, as long as they knew when to pay.
"I've specifically asked folks who are very agitated. I said, 'What would you like the bill to say? What would you like to see?' The response was an emphatic, 'Put the due date on it," Ayers said.
As Ayers continued to study the ordinance, he found out that the city was not in compliance with a list of other issues and needed to reconsider both the ordinance and the city's current billing practices.
For example, the city's 20-year-old ordinance says that if someone does not pay their bill, they get shut off 30 days after the bill is due. Currently, people have on average of 70 days from when they do not pay their bill until they finally are cut off.
The council discussed reducing that timeline, so that people will be shut off between 46 and 52 days after not paying their last bill.
"Staff felt the 30-day timeline is too restrictive and too tight, and the 70-day timeline is too flexible and leaves the city with too much exposure," Ayers said.
The city wrote off $545,000 of bad debt during the last fiscal year, which is split among all of the ratepayers. It accounts for 0.21 percent of the bills.
By lessening the amount of time between when a bill is not paid and service is cut off, the goal is to reduce the amount of money the city has to write off, Hood said.
"People get deeper and deeper into a hole, and it turns into a larger write-off, and so the responsible ratepayers end up supplementing the irresponsible ratepayers," Hood said.
A majority of residents do not even know when the city will shut off their power if they do not pay a bill because they pay on time, City Manager Rad Bartlam said. But there is another small group of residents who will only pay their bill right before or right after their power is disconnected.
Currently, they will wait 60 days from when their bill is due to pay it. This group will be the one most upset with the city changes, Bartlam said.
Councilman Larry Hansen questioned why anyone would wait to pay their bill, because they would have to pay the money eventually, as well as the fees.
Bartlam said they delay paying the bill to use the money for other things.
"They are the ones using us as their personal bank. They will pay the $20 worth of fees, and use us as a low-interest loan," Bartlam said.
Mounce said she is embarrassed to know people who fall into this category.
"I know some of these people who play this game. It's interesting to see how they make other things a priority," she said.
Ayers said people also will take advantage of the city by setting up payment arrangements that will delay their shutoff date, and then not pay them.
Employees in the Finance Department in 2010 made 7,400 arrangements to extend the amount of time residents have to pay their bill in an attempt to help people who are struggling get current, Ayers said.
Of those, about one-third end up honoring the arrangement.
"Our customers are very smart individuals, and have learned how our system works and how to work our system," Ayers said.
Councilman Alan Nakanishi said the city should not shorten its timeline because people are struggling with the economy. He asked city staff if they ever keep the power on because of their customers' circumstances.
Rob Lechner, the utility manager of customer service and programs, said some of the employees in the utility have turned off power at the meter and heard a resident's alarm on their oxygen tank going off. They turned the electricity back on in that situation.
City staff never takes the decision to turn off someone's power lightly, Bartlam said.
"By the time it gets to me, I wrestle with it more than any other decision. At some point the decision is going to be made that we are going to shut them off, and we are either closing their business or putting them in the dark and contacting code enforcement, because now they are violating state law," Bartlam said.
For the next step, staff will draft changes to the city's code, and then the council will consider the proposed changes no earlier than January 18.