Why are utility bills soaring in Independence? An audit could provide answers

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Utility costs continue to soar in Independence, leaving furious customers scrambling to pay their escalating bills. An external audit could provide insight into billing issues, but questions remain about software provided by a third-party vendor.

The city’s $2.1 million agreement with Advanced Utility Systems to administer its water, sewer and electric bills is under scrutiny. A private Facebook group focused on the high cost of utilities in Independence now has about 1,900 members. Most are outraged about their bills.

The page details story after story about rising costs and electric bills doubling and tripling since May. Residents have also denounced elected officials — including Mayor Eileen Weir — for not addressing their concerns sooner.

Officials at Advanced Utility Systems say they are working with Independence to rectify the situation. The company stands by its billing software, despite a growing number of lawsuits involving its parent company, N. Harris Computer Company of Canada.

Several other cities have sued N. Harris Computer over its services.

“We have tens of thousands of customers, and sometimes, there are issues,” said Advanced Utility Systems Executive Vice President Peter Fanous. “But that has no bearing on what is going on in Independence.”

In Independence, a variety of issues related to the current billing system have surfaced, the mayor said in a recent interview with The Star. In July, an internal audit raised questions about:

the timing of implementation of the new billing system,

insufficient training for staff due to technological limitations, and

the need for an external professional with experience in complex rate structures to review the utility rate classes in Independence.

The $15,000 external audit commissioned by the Independence City Council should provide clarity for customers concerned about unfair billing practices.

Weir is hopeful an outside agency can help determine the cause of the problems. Findings are expected before the end of the month.

“It takes time, but we don’t have much time,” Weir said.

There are talks of a class action lawsuit being filed against city-owned Independence Power & Light.

Independence Power & Light initially attributed the soaring costs to excessive summer heat. That’s similar to the explanation offered by Kansas City Power & Light after price hikes caused financial hardship for its customers in recent months.

A hot summer could explain the spiking power bills in Independence, but what about the water and sewer charges that ballooned as well? What can officials say to customers about those bills?

“Those are questions we are trying to get to the bottom of,” Weir said.

Since May, Independence has suspended electric service shutoffs. But the city should take additional steps, such as working with customers to spread current charges over a 12-month period with no negative impact on their accounts or credit scores. It should also suspend late payment fees.

Adjustments to bills and account credits could be warranted as well if the audit reveals billing irregularities.

Then city leaders should reexamine Independence’s service contract with Advanced Utility Systems to ensure the company is reliable and competent enough to be a viable partner for the city and its residents.