ROCHELLE — The City of Rochelle and Rochelle Municipal Utilities are offering after-hours appointments this month where customers can learn more about their bills or have questions answered.
City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh said the move was made in response to criticism on social media from customers that were upset about their bills. He said he and RMU representatives are happy to discuss any concerns customers have and wants to make them and the public more aware of what they’re paying for on bills from the locally-owned utility.
“We want people to understand their bills and we certainly don't want people thinking we're trying to take advantage of them,” Fiegenschuh said. “At the end of the day, we're a locally-owned utility. We're here to serve the public. If people have a question, call our staff and get an answer from somebody who knows what they're talking about.”
Three people have signed up for the bill review meetings so far. The city had a similar program in years past that saw little response. Fiegenschuh stressed that the city’s electric rates have not gone up in over six years and that RMU bills also include charges for water, water reclamation and garbage.
RMU Superintendent of Electric Operations Blake Toliver said he thinks “a lot” of people don’t fully understand how RMU’s billing works and he wants that to change. The abnormally-hot summer could also be a reason why customers are seeing higher bills.
“Last week it was 70 degrees,” Toliver said. “If you get your bill on a 70-degree day and it's $200 and wonder why it's so high, you have to remember it's for the last month of usage. We bill a month behind. When you have a month of 90-degree days, of course it's going to be high because your air conditioner ran a lot. That's something people need to realize. It's your prior usage.”
Fiegenschuh said if there are discrepancies within a bill, he and RMU staff want to find and address them. Staff pays attention to every bill and will call if they see a spike in something, he said.
RMU offers an audit for customers concerned with how their meter is reading. A staff member will come out and remove your meter and take it to be tested. Toliver said nine out of every 10 meters tested benefit the customer. Those that fail the test are replaced.
“These meters are reporting exactly what you're using,” Toliver said. “Readings are brought in automatically and transferred to the billing system and bills are generated. Nobody is sticking their fingers in there and changing readings or anything. You can go out and look at your meter and compare it to your bill. We're not out to get any one customer. You can't do that. The system won't allow that."
RMU does not currently offer energy audits, which include a technician coming into a customer’s home and inspecting it and advising on how they can be more energy efficient and save money on electric and water bills.
Fiegenschuh said the city is currently working to bring in a third party company to do energy audits for customers.
“Inefficiencies cost all of us money,” Fiegenschuh said. “Especially if it's during high peak times. We want people to be as efficient as possible. That lowers everybody's overall cost and saves power usage and consumption.”
RMU Director of Utility Finance Sarah Brooks said she’s excited to sit down with customers and explain their bills to them. She said RMU does not track the amount of complaints it gets, and she and Toliver said those who do call have for the most part been “pretty receptive” to what they tell them.
“I've never had somebody call me and say my bill is outrageous prior to a month to two ago,” Brooks said. “I've never had somebody call and ask for an energy audit or that we're scamming them.”
RMU is working to improve its online portal for customers and in the future it will provide more detailed information on past power use down to each hour. The utility also offers various programs for customers including a summer saver rate and budget billing.
Toliver expressed disappointment after seeing the social media comments that brought about the customer meeting appointments.
“It was very disheartening,” Toliver said. “I take a lot of pride in providing reliable and prompt service. We're all here day in and day out to provide the best service we possibly can for our customers at a reasonable rate.”