EVERETT — The Snohomish County PUD is considering a markedly old-school solution to billing problems created after switching to a new system last fall.
The changes led to unexpected spikes in bills for thousands of customers, who flooded the Public Utility District’s customer service office with calls. In response, the PUD is considering reading every customer’s meter each month. That would ensure ratepayers are billed only for electricity they actually use.
The change also would cost the district an estimated $13 million to $18 million over the next three years. District staff will present the options to the PUD’s publicly elected commissioners at their Tuesday meeting.
“We are a public agency, and we want to be responsive to customers,” PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos said.
The issue first came up following a switch to a new billing system in September. Before then, most ratepayers received a bill every other month, which was calculated by having a district employee read their meter every other month. The new system does not allow bi-monthly bills, prompting the district to switch to sending out bills every month.
So the PUD now estimates one month’s use based on how much power that address used at the same time last year. The next bill is based on an actual meter reading, and includes any difference between the prior estimate and actual usage. District officials say that over a two-month cycle, customers only paid for as much energy as they used.
Fewer than half of the estimated bills were within 10 percent of the actual amount. More than 10 percent of bills were more than 20 percent higher than they should have been, according to a presentation by PUD staff at the March 14 commissioner meeting.
Those differences would have been corrected in the next bill, Neroutsos said.
“We’ve been letting customers know that we can work with them” when estimated bills are too high, he said.
The PUD is considering two options to read every meter each month: doing the work in-house or contracting out. According to the PUD’s three-year estimates, doing it in-house would cost about $10.6 million and contracting would cost $6 million.
Other costs, including adding customer service and accounting employees, put the total price tag at $13.4 million to $18 million.
To pay for that, the district could raise rates, use reserves, cut other expenses or do a mix. Passing the cost to ratepayers could mean a 1 percent rate increase each year for three years.
The costs would be limited to three years, because after that the district hopes to have installed smart meters throughout most of its service area. Smart meters automatically transmit usage data, removing the need for a person to go out and take a reading.