After more than two years in the works, Benson’s switch to new “smart” water and electric meters has already had a positive impact on provider and consumer, according to town officials.
During late January’s wintry mix, electrical outages were quickly identified and fixed in record time. The technologically advanced meters communicate with each other to form a web of information — viewable at town hall — so things like water leaks and abnormal power usage reveal themselves in the system.
In numerous interviews, Town Manager Matt Zapp, perhaps Benson’s biggest smart meter proponent, has discussed the benefits of the town’s latest project — extremely accurate meter reads and speedy problem solving top the list. However, one the biggest (and most obvious) smart meter-related perks is coming to Benson this spring — a single billing cycle.
Currently, the town’s utility customers are divided into east and west. Each side gets its meters read at a different time leading to utility bills with as much as a 60-day lag from consumption to payment.
“For instance, we read meters on the first of February — that would be for consumption from Jan. 1 to Feb. 1 — and we don’t bill that till March 1. You see the lag time there?” explained Benson Finance Director Kimberly Pickett.
Ms. Pickett was hired in 2014 to help with the billing software that accompanied the smart meter installation. She was officially appointed to her intended role earlier this year.
“For customers on the east side it’s a 60-day lag and for customers on the west side it’s a 45-day lag (with the old system). I’ve been asked how that happened — and it was that way before I started working here,” she said.
“(The lag) makes (billing) really difficult, especially when you get into seasons like May, when it’s generally pretty and customers are paying for the cold weather. They don’t understand that — people forget about the weather,” added Ms. Pickett.
To line up both the east and west side bills for 45-day reads will be required, she explained, but the new billing schedule, which was approved by town commissioners during this month’s board meeting, should be evident in customers’ June 7 bill.
“We are going to read (meters) based on the calendar month. So we will read from the first to the last day of the month — whether that be 28 days, 30 or 31,” said Ms. Pickett. “Then the customer will receive their bill by the seventh of the following month.”
The new billing process is a return to simplicity, allowed by the new smart meter system.
“From a business perspective, for us, our power purchase bills come (based on) a calendar month… . It’s also easier with the new meters because we can read from the office now. We don’t have to send somebody out. It’s a lot faster now, where it typically took a week to do one cycle before.”
“I think it’s a more logical system. There won’t be any confusion. We’re shortening the timeframe between reads and billing, so people are going to remember that they went out of town for a week or they’re going to remember that it snowed,” she added.
Ms. Pickett said the single cycle bill was also put in place with residents’ source of income in mind. The new system should be preferable to those that get paychecks at the beginning or end of the month, as well as things like disability checks.
“We have adjusted the due dates as well. By having the billing on the seventh of the month, the due date will be the 22. You’re basically going to get the same amount of days to pay the bill, but the (timeframe) is different,” she said.
Benson is now working to set up its online payment system where residents will be able to view and pay their bills online. In addition, the town is also sorting out pre-pay options for utilities. A Benson mailer is scheduled to be sent out explaining the transition. Courtesy The Daily Record