Paying Bills at Drive-thru results in Traffic Chaos…

Paying Bills at Drive-thru results in Traffic Chaos…

LAKELAND | Lakeland Electric is on the verge of pulling the plug on walk-in and drive-through payments at its downtown headquarters.

The reason for wanting to end the service is, of course, money. Utility officials Monday told city commissioners that Lakeland Electric could save about $363,000 per year without the customer service counters and drive-through, that being the difference between the cost of servicing customers in person and processing payments made online or by mail.

Commissioners are scheduled to vote July 21 on a plan to end the service.

About 360,000 transactions each year are handled in person by the utility.

Utility supervisors say they want to privatize what has long been a function of the city-owned utility. There are currently 41 locations throughout Lakeland Electric’s service territory where utility bill payments are accepted. Twenty-four are convenience stores. The most popular off-site payment locations are six Amscot offices. Six SunTrust bank offices and five Western Union offices also accept Lakeland Electric payments.

A survey by the utility found that investor-owned utilities such as Tampa Electric no longer have utility-owned “walk-in” payment facilities while most Florida municipal utilities, such as in Tallahassee and Gainesville, still accept walk-in customers at their offices.

Lakeland City Manager Doug Thomas said Monday during a Utility Committee meeting that people pay at the utility’s administration building “by habit.”

On Monday, lots of people had the habit. At one point Monday afternoon, 18 cars were in the three lanes of the drive-through. Later the waiting line grew longer and spilled onto the street.

And customers had the pay-inside-the-building habit, too. The line for customer service representatives sometimes snaked out to the front door in the administration building.

James Seaton, 69, waited in line at the drive-through. He walks with a cane and said he needs to use a drive-through to pay. His bill was due Monday.

SunTrust has drive-throughs but payments to Lakeland Electric made at the bank branches are sent by mail to Lakeland Electric and not immediately credited to customers’ accounts.

Sharon Wisneski paid inside Monday. “This is where I always pay my bill,” she said. “I’m down here anyway” so paying a bill is convenient, she said. “I hope they don’t close it down.”

Lakeland Electric officials say nine customer service representatives will no longer be needed, but those jobs will be eliminated through attrition and transfers to other jobs.

One of the biggest problems with accepting payments in person, utility officials said, is the staff is busy only about six days a month. Half of in-person utility payments are collected on Mondays and Fridays.

“Other than six days a month, it’s a ghost town,” city Finance Director Greg Finch said. “This is not a good business for us to be in – we’re not set up for it.”

Lakeland Electric officials said Monday it costs them $2.74 to accept and process an in-person payment, 74 cents for a mail-in payment and 22 cents for an online payment.

Amscot charges Lakeland Electric customers $1 to accept payments, utility supervisors said.

Al Whittle, a Utility Committee member, wondered why Amscot could make a profit taking the money and charge just $1 while it costs Lakeland Electric $2.74. But other members of the committee speculated that Amscot used Lakeland Electric as a loss leader, a money-losing proposition to get customers in the store.

The majority of people who pay in person downtown do so because their bill is due that day. Utility supervisors said that, excluding payments to SunTrust, customers can pay elsewhere and phone the utility with a confirmation number to avoid late fees.

The Utility Committee told the staff to come back in two weeks with more details about the shutdown plan, particularly how it’s going to be implemented.

No decision has been made about what to do with the empty space if the plan goes forward.

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