COPPERAS COVE — The complicated process of restarting a viable water billing department in Copperas Cove is starting to take shape.
The Cove City Council met in special session Thursday afternoon for a briefing by City Manager Ryan Haverlah and Public Works Director Scott Osburn.
Haverlah briefly recapped the current situation with Fathom, the third-party billing company the city signed a contract with in 2016. He reminded the 25 people in the council meeting room that Fathom notified the city on Nov. 9 that it was be going out of business. The company planned to end service by the end of the month, leaving Copperas Cove to figure out how it would bill customers for water from December onward.
Haverlah emphasized that the situation was still very fluid, with city staffers gathering information and passing it along as quickly as possible. He also pointed out that the meeting was meant as a way to get direction from the City Council on what options they would like city staff to pursue.
Though the question was not asked until later in the meeting, Haverlah wanted to make sure that the City Council still wanted city staff to pursue a solution that would bring water billing back under the control of the city. Every member of the council agreed that they wanted to bring water billing back in-house.
The first part of the meeting dealt with the nuts and bolts staffing, location and billing. Haverlah said the Utility Administration Department would add four employees to deal with the transition, at an additional cost of $141,362.
Haverlah said that the city could hire additional temporary employees to help deal with the expected increase in calls and in-person payments, if necessary.
City staffers recommended the temporary expansion of the current space used for utility billing at City Hall, adding room for additional employees and more space for customers to wait to be served. That is expected to cost $10,000.
As far as a permanent solution for needed space, council members directed Haverlah to explore reopening the city’s old utility building. Asbestos abatement, renovations and repairs are projected to cost a total of $115,000.
Haverlah said the city would be unable to accept online payments, auto payments and payments from customer bank accounts once Fathom goes away at the end of the month. Checks, cash, credit cards and payment by phone would still be taken by utility employees. Haverlah also recommended that the City Council consider purchasing a kiosk that could accept customer payments 24 hours a day. He suggested that the kiosk could be located in the lobby of the police station, which is open 24 hours. The approximate cost of the kiosk is $24,000.
Starting in December and until a new billing system is in place, Haverlah said customer service representatives will be taking payments using the city’s existing billing software and issuing a printed receipt.
The final part of Haverlah’s presentation dealt with the issue of finding a company to handle the city’s software billing needs.
City staff recommended against using Vertex One and Advanced Utility Systems because of their previous ties to Fathom.
Haverlah outlined the pros and cons of the two remaining companies, Incode and Starnik. Incode is the company that city used before it decided to move to Fathom. Haverlah said there were advantages to using Incode because the company still had the city’s utility billing module. But Incode had also told Haverlah that it could not begin migrating customer data until January, which means that customer billing could be delayed for several months.
Starnik provided city staffers with a demonstration of what they could offer in terms of handling data gathering and software needs before the meeting. However, Haverlah called the company a “big question mark,” saying that city staff wanted to make sure they had all the information possible before making an agreement with an unfamiliar company.
To that end, Haverlah recommended that the council hold another special meeting on Tuesday at 5 p.m. Haverlah said he would have more information about each company, including a cost analysis and possible contract terms. He hoped the City Council might be able to choose one of the companies at Tuesday’s meeting.
In the meantime, the city will hold a special town hall to answer resident’s questions about water billing Friday at 6 p.m. at the Copperas Cove Civic Center.