Utility customers pay extra for 'convenience'

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By Roger Snodgrass

At a recent meeting of the Los Alamos County Council, Assistant Utilities Manager John Arrowsmith reported that 38 customers had paid their utility bills by credit card, including an additional “convenience fee” of $4.95.

Some residents found the new arrangement convenient, but not everybody was happy about the new charge.

Sheila Shiferl of White Rock said she went in to the utilities office to pay her bill on Friday and discovered a sign that said she would have to pay an extra $4.95 for the service, a new charge that she was not aware of.

She said she hadn’t been notified by the Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities but was informed by the cashier at the 311 Customer Care Center that notices would be coming out in the new bills.

Arrowsmith was asked this week to explain the new service and the new charge.

“Customers had been telling us that they would like the convenience of paying their utility bills with a credit card online,” said Arrowsmith. “That option became available on April 21. With this new payment option customers have the flexibility to pay a utilities bill securely over the telephone or through the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

He said the Utilities Board had decided some time ago that it did not want to absorb the cost of credit card fees and had abandoned the idea, until a provider came up with a solution that makes the customer bear a cost in exchange for the convenience. There is also an 800 number that enables payment by phone.

Building the potential cost of credit card payments into the customer’s bill, as many other businesses do, would have created an unfair charge to those who don’t choose to use the service.

On Monday, the utilities department issued a press release with additional details. The new service is provided by a company based in Toronto, Canada, Paymentus Corporation.

“A Request for Proposal was issued on Oct. 30, 2007,” said Julie Williams, the public information officer for the utilities department. “We issued an RFP on Oct 30, 2007; two companies responded, Paymentus and Govolution. A contract was awarded Nov. 26.”

Williams said payments were formerly processed for walk-in customers and the utilities department absorbed the costs, as the county does for customers at the aquatic center and golf course, because the numbers are smaller.

“Now with Paymentus and online payment the feeling was to do everybody the same,” she said.

The company processes the transaction and pays the credit card fee out of the $4.95 charge to the customer. The charge applies to bill amounts up to $450. Bills larger than $450, according to the arrangement, must be paid in multiple installments with an additional $4.95 for each installment.

Paymentus keeps the difference between the charge for its service and the credit card fees as revenue.

Customers can continue to use the conventional payment method of writing a check and dropping it in the mail. There is also an Automatic Bill Pay Plan, by which customers can arrange with their banks to make automatic payments on utility bills.

Credit card payments are still accepted at the Customer Care Center in the utilities office at 911 Trinity Drive. The center combines functions of the former KanDu center and handles utilities and county-wide information requests.

“Coming soon, customers will be able to pay utility bills free of charge at Los Alamos National Bank counters, drive through windows and certain LANB automatic teller machines in the county,” Arrowsmith added. “The beauty of this partnership is that it is available to all ratepayers, regardless of whether or not they bank with LANB.”

Since the last report May 1, another 17 people had used the service as of Monday.

For more information, dial 311 or 662-8333 or e-mail 311@lacnm.us.

For payment information visit the county website, www.losalamosnm.us or call 1-866-417-0694.