Copperas Cove city manager updates on water billing transition
By BRITTANY FHOLER
On Tuesday evening, the Copperas Cove City Council chambers in the Technology Building was full of residents hoping to hear an update from the city manager regarding the city’s utility administration services after Fathom announced it would be going out of business and cutting ties with the city.
The city council met in executive session following the invocation and pledges during its regular meeting to discuss Fathom before reconvening.
City Manager Ryan Haverlah shared a brief synopsis of what has happened since the November 9 announcement from Fathom, and in-person during a client-wide meeting on November 12. Fathom gave notice that it would close by the end of November, Haverlah said.
Four points emerged after Tuesday night’s meeting:
- The city is recommending in-house billing management,
- Water service will continue to the city.
- Auto-pay and online payments will go away (for now); customers will need to make payments in person or by mail, with more information to come from the city regarding payments.
- More meetings will be held this week, a special city council meeting on Thursday at noon and a twon hall meeting on Friday with a question-and-answer time.
City recommends in-house billing management
In its efforts to close down after failing to obtain more investors, Fathom has presented the city of Copperas Cove and other clients with an organization called VertexOne, which is a software company.
“Vertex has stated that they would be willing to take Copperas Cove and many of the other Fathom clients on as their own client, and they have been very direct and honest about what their expectation is and that they understand the sensitivity of the timeline that we are facing,” Haverlah said. He added that city staff have been researching numerous issues and opportunities, with Vertex One being one option. Another option is the billing system that Copperas Cove utilized prior to the switch to Fathom.
“At this point based on the information that I have, it would be staff’s recommendation that we go back to a full-service in-house utility administration department, which means we are providing customer service, we are providing the billing calculations, the billing oversight, the payment collection process, but it does require that we have assets or resources to provide that service,” Haverlah added.
Council will provide direction regarding all of the different options and details to be brought to city council during their special meeting Thursday at noon.
Decisions still to be determined include a physical location for the utility administration office as well as software providers for billing, a customer portal for paying bills online, and more.
“The city owns all water meters and the entire water meter reading collection system, and so none of that is owned by Fathom,” Haverlah said. “Fathom is not coming here to rip it out of the ground and sell it off at an auction for pennies.”
Haverlah shared that Scott Osburn has taken on the role of director of the utility administration department “very diligently and with an urgency knowing the impact that it has to us as an organization, to our community and to our customers.”
“We already went through a transition process over three years ago. It was not fun,” Haverlah said. “The last three and a half years have been very difficult, and to all of our customers, I want to say I’m sorry, we’re going to have to go through another transition process. I don’t know how difficult it’s going to be, but I do know that the staff in your organization as well as this city council will look at every option and make the most appropriate decisions based on the information that we have. I think one of the best things about this is that this is an opportunity to begin providing the service that our customers expect for our utility administration department and for the service which you receive.”
Water service itself will continue
Haverlah answered some of the questions he had heard or seen. One asked about water service being interrupted with Fathom leaving.
“Your water is not going to be disconnected by Fathom,” Haverlah said. “Fathom doesn’t have a magic button to turn water on and off. City staff have always turned water on and turned water off.”
He stressed that it is important for customers to continue paying their bills though and referred to the problem at the beginning of the transition to Fathom when the city ended up behind on billing by two months, resulting in high water bills for customers, who hadn’t saved up the money.
“The fees that we pay, pay for the direct cost of the services that we receive,” Haverlah said. “There are no investors within the city of Copperas Cove’s water service, sewer and collections service, solid waste. All of us are the stakeholders, and we don’t want a check from our own neighbor for the service they receive because guess what- we’re giving our neighbor a check too. We’re simply paying for the cost of that service and when we don’t pay for that cost as customers, we’re damaging the ability to provide that service in the most efficient and healthy way possible.”
Customer payments: Auto-pay and online payment to discontinue, customers to submit payments locally or mail-in
For customers who pay by mail, the city will be releasing a press release soon asking those customers to send payment to a local P.O. box.
Customers are also encouraged to make payments in person, at the local office, but Haverlah encouraged citizens to be kind and have patience with the three customer service representatives in the office.
“Keep in mind, we are not staffed for 14,000 local payments at our utility administration office,” he said.
For payments online, Haverlah shared that after November 29, those payments will stop and eventually there won’t be an option to make a payment online. Regarding AutoPay, customers should have already noticed that Fathom has turned off the Auto Pay option.
Regarding whether Fathom will be required to pay the city back, Haverlah said no.
“Let me put it this way: Fathom’s going out of business, because they don’t have enough money to stay in business,” Haverlah said.
More meetings, more information to come this week
For other questions and more information on Fathom, residents can visit the city’s website at http://www.copperascovetx.gov/pio/fathom/. They can also attend the city council’s special meeting this Thursday, November 21, at noon, in the Technology Building at 508 S. 2nd Street and the Public Forum/Town Hall meeting this Friday, November 22, at 6 p.m. at the Copperas Cove Civic Center at 1206 W. Avenue B.
There will be an opportunity for the public to ask questions and give comments at both meetings.
Both Thursday’s meeting and Friday’s Public Forum/Town Hall meeting will be streamed via Facebook Live from the city’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/cityofcopperascove.
See the Friday, November 22 publication for the latest update after Thursday's special council meeting.