A new $4.60 monthly fee will be assessed to those who pay utility bills online, and some customers aren’t happy.
Utility customers Adam Weber and Austin Kolb are petitioning the fee.
Weber said he first noticed the fee when he paid his bill. After reading a Columbia Tribune article on the new charge, Weber was angry.
The fee has always been around $3.20 with no fee on direct transfer, Weber said.
Per the new system, all customers paying their city utility bill online or through automated phone system will be charged a $4.60 fee when using a credit card, debit card or e-check.
“The $4.60 amount was roughly based on the average utility bill paid by customers of the city and the expenses to the city of processing the collection of those payments,” City Treasurer Bette Wordelman said. “The total expenses include the expense of the credit card fees. The credit card transaction fees were the largest part of the expense considered when upgrading the website and the phone system.”
Wordelman said the city has been averaging between $45,000-$50,000 per month in credit card process fees, totaling to nearly $500,000 a year.
The upgrade to the utility bill pay system came as part of new security standards mandated by the credit card industry, Wordelman said.
Kolb, a friend of Weber’s and co-writer of the petition, said he was equally frustrated when Weber told him about the fee.
“I used to do direct transfer. (The charge is) especially ridiculous for me because I only get sewage,” Kolb said. “My bill is between $15 and $20. It’s a little bit less ridiculous to pay $4 on a $150 bill, but I’m paying 25 percent of my bill or more.”
After Kolb was paying his bill in the office and saw the fee, Weber explained the new charge to him. Kolb and Weber wrote the petition and got it online. It currently has 87 signatures.
“The whole point of the petition is to get a bunch of people behind us and bring it to City Council later on,” Weber said.
Weber and Kolb agree that they don’t think many have noticed the fee and feel like many are confused about it.
“People are so used to getting to the end of online checkouts and there are always fees,” Kolb said. “It’s kind of ingrained in us not to question the fees and just click okay.”
Wordelman said there has always been confusion because of the various payment channels and methods of payment used.
Columbia residents can pay their utility bill online or through an automated phone system by credit card, debit card or e-check. Bill payers can also mail in a check or an automatic bank drafting system to pay.
The $4.60 bill-paying fee is charged to those paying online or through the automated phone pay system, regardless of the method of payment, Wordelman said. Automatic bank drafting is the exception to this rule.
“If customers sign up for the city's automatic bank draft system, there is no fee charged to the customer for their payments,” Wordelman said. “The city will automatically debit the amount of their bill from their bank account on the due date of their bill.”
The difference between e-checks and automatic bank drafting is the source of most of the confusion.
Wordelman said the bank drafting allows the customer to authorize the city to withdraw on a monthly basis and always gives customers the right to switch it off at any time.
With an e-check, the customer must initiate the payment each time he or she pays a bill.
Automatic bank drafts, e-checks and debit card payments are often confused with each other as the funds come from the customer’s bank account, Wordelman said.
“Obviously there are some people that are angry about it because they were previously using the system free of charge to pay their bills, and it was a very convenient method of payment,” Wordelman said. “The other side of the argument, though, is that the people that were not running up credit card fees because they were paying through cash or check were basically bearing the expense of those credit card fees as well as everyone else.”
Weber said he doesn’t like that the way to get around the charge is to receive a paper bill and pay through the mail.
“I think it’s unnecessary, especially for how forward thinking Columbia is,” Weber said. “I don’t think we should be punished for choosing the greener option.”
Wordelman said the city would like to stress that the automatic bank drafting is the lowest cost, highest accuracy method of paying a utility bill, and that paperless billing is in the works.