Copperas Cove holds town hall meeting on utilities, special council meeting set for Tuesday
By BRITTANY FHOLER
More than 100 residents attended the Public Forum/Town Hall meeting held Friday evening at the Copperas Cove Civic Center to learn more about the city’s plans following the utility billing provider Fathom’s abrupt departure.
City Manager Ryan Haverlah provided residents with a brief summary of the events from when Fathom first announced they were going out of business to the Copperas Cove City Council’s special meeting held at noon on Thursday, where council members sat through a presentation before directing city staff on the next steps.
During that Thursday meeting, Haverlah briefed the council on the city’s options for utility administration once Fathom’s services end on November 30, including the option of bringing a utility administration department back to the city to operate in-house.
Council agreed and approved the hiring of four additional personnel for the utility administration department, bringing the total of employees to 12 to include six customer service representatives, one supervisor, one billing technician, three meter-readers/service technicians and one senior meter-reader. This would cost an additional $141,362.
After discussion, the city council also directed city staff to pursue expansion from the current Utility Office in Suite A at City Hall (914 S. Main Street) to Suite B as well, to operate out of temporarily once Fathom stops providing its billing and customer service.
This expansion will cost approximately $10,000, but will not be a long-term solution, so council also agreed to direct city staff to pursue renovation and remodeling of the city’s old utility building located at 305 S. Main Street. This renovation will be a one-time cost of $115,000 and will include asbestos abatement of the floors and ceiling, as well as bringing the bathrooms up to ADA compliance. The city council also looked at potentially leasing out a space but when comparing costs of leasing versus renovating, ultimately decided to go with the less expensive option.
Haverlah also provided council with the city’s options for software, which he said was what the city really needed since Fathom had been providing the customer information system, billing software and meter reading software. The city owns the meters outright, but not the software to read the meters.
Haverlah presented the city council with a chart showing the costs from five different providers, including Fathom and Fathom’s suggested group, Vertex One.
Other providers included AUS, Incode and Starnik. Haverlah recommended the council not consider AUS or Vertex One, and council agreed before directing city staff to look into Starnik and Incode more.
Incode is the software that the city utilized prior to switching to Fathom, but Haverlah said that Incode would not be able to begin migrating customer data until January.
Haverlah said that Starnikhad been in contact with the city since the contract with Fathom had been signed and had provided city staff with a demonstration of what they could offer but were a relatively unknown company for city staff.
During the town hall meeting, it was revealed by a resident, Barbara Bednar, that Starnik might be a fake company. Bednar shared that she spent an hour researching Incode and Starnik and found that all of the five-star reviews for Starnik were made by its parent company and called it a fake company. She pointed out that Starnik has not made public a list of any other municipalities that it works with.
“Starnik is sneaky and creepy, so please keep that in mind,” Bednar said.
Haverlah said that Starnik did provide the city with a list of references to contact but agreed there wasn’t a public list.
The town hall meeting, which lasted more than two hours, featured a lot of the same information as previously released by the city on its Facebook page and website as well as new information about bills.
The most important message shared during the town hall was that there will not be an interruption in service due to Fathom departing, because Fathom was never in charge of shutting off water service. Haverlah said that once Fathom departs, and takes its customer information system with it, the city won’t be able to see who has or hasn’t paid their bill until they obtain a new CIS.
There is the possibility that customers might not receive a bill in December, but Haverlah encouraged residents to pay their bill or set aside the amount they think they would owe because the bills will be collected eventually.
The money collected goes to the city’s utility funds which are divided into three funds: water and sewer, solid waste and drainage.
“If Fathom keeps that money, guess what? That’s called theft, and they still owe that money even if they’re going out of business,” Haverlah said.
Utility customer payment options
Haverlah recommended that all residents turn off the option for AutoPay since Fathom has not yet done so, as previously thought. The only payment options that residents will be able to utilize once the city makes the transition to in-house service will be check, credit card and cash. No ACH payments or bank draft payments or online payments will be allowed. Customers will be able to call and make a payment, make a payment in person or mail their payments to a new mailing address: Box 1419, Copperas Cove, TX 76522.
The phone number will be announced closer to the end of the month.
Following Haverlah’s summary of events, residents could submit written questions. One of the first written questions submitted asked about why the city switched to Fathom in the first place and what will be different with the utilities switching back to being inhouse.
Haverlah said he would not dwell on the past before answering.
“I stated to everybody that I’ve talked to that Fathom going out of business is probably the best opportunity we’ve had as a community to improve service in our community and that’s the way we at the city, staff, and your city council right here have approached this, and that’s what we’re doing,” Haverlah said.
Fathom was a company that was presented to city council with a few key points of improving the reading of water usage by installing new meters and by offering “much more robust payment options than what we as a community in 2015 and 2016 were offering to our customers,” Haverlah said. “Another reason was because even though we had the utility administration department inhouse prior to 2016, that doesn’t mean it was a great operation. Many customers were frustrated and upset with the past operations inhouse as well, and so the city management, city council saw this as an opportunity to try and help improve that customer service.”
At the end of the forum, reisdents also had the opportunity to approach the microphone and ask questions.
Several questions asked about “guesstimating” their bill amount and paying that during the period where there might not be bills sent out. Haverlah said that it would be his recommendation to do exactly that.
Tilee Grimm asked who came up with the idea in the first place to switch to Fathom, to which Haverlah explained that Fathom approached the city.
“The city receives cold call requests regularly for all kinds of things,” Haverlah said. “It just so happened that when Fathom cold called the city and came in and talked to the city and then eventually shared that information with city council, based on the information that city council had, they made the best decision that they could.”
When Grimm asked about why the citizens weren’t given the opportunity to vote on the decision, Haverlah told her that this was not an item that residents would have been able to vote on. The state of Texas limits what can be placed on the ballot, he added.
“As customers, as residents, we are a representative government,” Haverlah said. “We vote for city council. City council makes decisions based on what they campaigned on and decided. We have access regularly to city council to tell them, ‘Hey, you should do this or shouldn’t do that.’”
Valerie Choron asked her own question and a question on behalf of her husband, Erik Choron, who is currently stationed in Germany but was watching the Facebook Live video.
Her question dealt with contacting the State about utilizing an emergency fund to assist with the costs of transitioning to an in-house provider. Haverlah said he has asked the emergency management coordinator to inquire about that.
Erik Choron’s question was “Is Cove using the same legal counsel that originally advised on Fathom’s contract?”, which drew applause and laughter from the audience.
“I’m actually not going to say yes because that’s something that I’m not proud of, but the city attorney did not review the contract with Fathom,” Haverlah revealed. “When we first started talking with Fathom the way they presented the option was, and this is the way Fathom’s course of business model was, is that they were the ‘turnkey solution,’ and what that means is they were the one organization that you went to for everything- including issuing the debt for the meters that we purchased.”
Haverlah said that the city’s bond counsel reviewed the contract, but only looked at the bond issue.
When Choron asked a follow up about whether the city would now be implementing a policy of having the city attorney review every contract, Haverlah said “Absolutely.”
“I can tell you when it finally came up and the city attorney said ‘Where’s the contract?’, and they looked at the contract, they said, ‘We would have never approved this,’ so as a point of assurance, you can know that they would have never approved it,” Haverlah said.
Place 3 Council member Dan Yancey closed out the forum with his own message.
“Being a council person is not an easy job,” Yancey said. “You make a decision based on facts that are being presented to you, you can ask a lot of questions but there’s still a lot of things that you have to rely on the staff to provide to you.”
Yancey called himself the “last man standing” that voted for Fathom.
“It was presented to us as a revenue-increaser and a potential expense cutter,” he said. “Now that sounds like a win-win when you look at it on the surface, so. We live in a city where every penny counts, every tax dollar makes a difference, so the fact that we could increase revenues and go to a digital system sounded very, very appealing. Did we make a mistake? Hell yeah, as it turned out, we did. But we do the best that we can.”
City council will be holding another Special Meeting Tuesday at 5 p.m. to possibly select a software and service vendor for a customer information system, customer portal, work order system, payment processor and bill printer/mailer.