Copperas Cove not alone in bumpy FATHOM transition
By LYNETTE SOWELL
Copperas Cove utility customers are still learning to deal with the changes brought about by the transition to the management of the city’s utility accounts by FATHOM Water Systems, an Arizona-based company which currently manages accounts for more than 150 communities nationwide.
Customers with billing and account service issues haven’t been limited to Copperas Cove alone.
Another city, Zephyrhills, Florida, transitioned to FATHOM for its utility account management last year and is a few steps ahead of Copperas Cove in the process. That city was in negotiations with FATHOM in February 2016 and formally celebrated a $6 million, 10-year agreement for its 13,000 accounts in September 2016.
Back in October 2016, that city’s council expressed concerns during its transition, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times. At that time, city staffers told the council the program’s launch for the 13,000 utility accounts was “rocky.” One of the issues brought up was that 300 customers were mistakenly charged a service fee in addition to their normal payments. Also, phone wait times were longer than anticipated.
According to that article, Lance Smith, a Zephyrhills city council member, said then that he was “disappointed by the problems and called on FATHOM officials to come before the council, saying the company should have offered the longer in-person staffing during the changeover. ‘I’ve just got some serious concerns,’ Smith said.”
The Leader-Press contacted Smith for an update on that city’s perspective compared to last fall. Smith said there are still issues, but not as many as there used to be.
“Obviously, there are some pains when you’re going through a transition like this,” said Smith. “That being said, they’re getting better.”
Zephyrhills has maintained all its utility department employees on staff. The Zephyrhills Free Press reported in October 2016 that Martha Simons, Zephyrhills’ utility billing supervisor, said complaints were “beginning to ebb.” That city also experienced perceived “double billing” issues similar to that in Copperas Cove. In that city’s case, August bills were delayed for 18 days during that transition, with September bills being released on time, with some customers receiving two utility bills, about two weeks apart. Simons also said FATHOM was “a little overwhelmed at the start over people calling to get their new account numbers, people wanting to get seasonal turn-ons and people wanting to get general information. It was a perfect storm.” Simons anticipated it would take about six months to get things running as smoothly as the city would like them to run.
Chris Drews, publisher of the Zephyrhills Free Press, told the Leader-Press on Tuesday that the main issue he saw in his community, which has a large older population, was accounts being turned off because mailed-in payments sent from Florida weren’t received in Arizona in time.
Meanwhile, in Copperas Cove, city budget director Ryan Haverlah talked about the payments the City of Copperas Cove receives in its drop box at the Utilities Administration building. Sometimes, Haverlah said, that box can contain as many as 150 bill payments or more. Those bills and payments are verified, but then the Utilities Department will mail those payments in a packet to FATHOM for processing.
FATHOM offers through its online portal the ability for customers to pay via ACH, or electronic check, at no charge. However, instead of the flat $1.25 fee customers were charged when customers used their credit cards, there is a 2.8% “convenience fee” to process a bill payment with a credit or debit card.
Haverlah also said the utilities department employees which remain, three permanent employees in total, have several responsibilities. Those include providing information about connections and disconnections, or “move in, move outs.” One of those employees is dedicated to troubleshooting in the field where the meters are concerned. Also, the employees provide past account information to FATHOM.
For example, when customers call in with a billing issue to FATHOM, the FATHOM customer service representatives don’t have the billing and usage history prior to January 2017. Instead, FATHOM will take the customer’s information and questions, then check with the City of Copperas Cove utility employee to find an answer. Haverlah said two more employees have been pulled in from other departments to provide additional support to Utilities as the transition continues.
Haverlah said that FATHOM’s U2You portal has had an upgrade to 2.1. Also, customers looking to download the app to their iPhones or Android phones should look for the “Fathom U2You” app. Using the app and the website, customers can access a reading of their daily water usage to aid conservation and also receive alerts in the case of leaks.
FATHOM is currently conducting an audit of all water meters in the city, to be completed by mid-June. That audit is part of the quality control during the transition process, said Jason Bethke, President and Chief Growth Officer for FATHOM.
Bethke said FATHOM has hired additional customer service representatives for its call center, to help cut down on customer wait times. Also, as a direct result of the town hall meetings and customer input, Bethke said clarifications were made on the customer bills to reflect what customers had received before, such as “rubbish” being changed to “solid waste.”
“These sorts of services are always shared responsibilities. It’s a partnership,” Bethke said. “We really look forward to working with Copperas Cove and the community to continue to improve the service and really listen for the things that the community is asking for.”
The City of Copperas Cove and FATHOM are holding a third town hall meeting at the Copperas Cove Civic Center on Monday, June 5, at 5:30 p.m. Customers will be able to hear updates and ask questions. The city will have utility department staff on hand to access customer account information to assist as well.