By Timothy Cox
The 2003 annual report for the St. Marys Utilities office has some numbers that Celina Director of Administrative Services Jeff Hazel would like to see show up in his city’s annual report.
The St. Marys report shows that its utilities department collected 99.46 percent of the $13,801,493 billed last year. Celina averaged about 98 percent collections for last year, with the number likely creeping closer to 99 percent this year, Hazel said.
The collections rate has been the source of a friendly rivalry between Hazel and St. Marys Utilities Supervisor Chris Musser.
“She rubs that in all the time,” Hazel said. “But I’m going to beat her. We’ve made quantum leaps in collections.”
The difference between 98 percent collections and 99.46 percent seems negligible but it adds up to big bucks when considering the utilities handle millions of dollars per year, Hazel said. For example, the 0.54 percent delinquency rate in St. Marys added up to about $11,000 last year. Just a couple of years ago, Celina Utilities was losing more than that amount every month in bad debt.
Hazel has ordered a couple of changes aimed at improving collections in Celina. The billing cycle has been switched to twice monthly and utility customers also are receiving an extra bill this month to bring their accounts current. That means in the future, bills will reflect a meter reading only about 10 days old.
“It was a real difficult issue the way we billed before, where we were two months behind,” Hazel said, adding that is is more difficult to track down delinquent customers after that much time, especially if they have left the area.
Hazel and his staff have “taken incredible heat” from customers over the changes, he said. But utilities customers must remember they are part owner of the municipal utility and fewer delinquent accounts means lower rates for everybody, Hazel said.
In St. Marys, officials dogged pursuit of delinquent accounts has not led to an inordinate amount of customers having their utilities turned off, the annual report shows. A total of 2,002 24-hour shut-off notices were mailed last year by the St. Marys office but only 88 of those accounts had to be turned off for not paying.
St. Marys will grant time extensions to customers who request them and the city also uses a collection agency to attempt to reclaim uncollectible debts.
Celina briefly used such a service but the company terminated the contract because it was not making any money from it, Hazel said. Statistics show only about 9 percent of delinquent utility accounts are tracked down and collected by independent agencies, Hazel said.