Personnel shortages have pushed Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) more than a week late in sending out bills for November, impacting around 5,166 customers across the city.
“The workload is just coming in faster than we can get them out,” Kinn’zon Hutchinson, GRU’s chief customer officer, said in a phone interview.
He said the utility has shifted personnel internally to tackle the problem and noted that despite challenges, GRU has remained on track for more than 95% of its customers. Hutchinson said GRU has also tried adjusted pay to retain positions, but he noted that shortages across the city, county and nation have given employees lots of options.
“We’ve ultimately decided to redivert efforts to really try to hone in on getting a grasp around this so customers do get their bills and that they’re not overcharged as well,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said GRU plans to have the bills sent in the coming weeks but encouraged effected customers to send in partial payments, roughly their monthly bill, to start. Once the bills come out, they’ll reflect the payments. The utility will also set up a payment plan for customers thrown off their economic schedule by the delay.
Hutchinson said a full staff of meter readers would be around 22-24 employees. Without that full complement, the company estimates some utility bills. When this happens, GRU checks the meter for the next month and adjusts the bill accordingly.
He said estimating meters also prevents bills that come from a 34-, 35- or 36-day bill. Longer billing cycles contributed to high bills over the summer.
However, Hutchinson said the system clamps down on those estimated bills because the numbers seem off. The design prevents an automatic bill from being sent with incorrect numbers but also forces GRU employees to send out estimated bills manually. For November’s bills, the number overwhelmed staff.
“To protect the customer, we manually lay eyes on it, and so that’s what’s been creating delay,” Hutchinson said.
GRU expects to return to the normal timing for December, and the holidays shouldn’t impact customers, he said.
Looking to next year, GRU hopes to ramp up its distribution of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). These meters send the water or electricity usage wirelessly to GRU and the customer, allowing accurate measurement each month along with reads throughout the month.
As the AMI network builds out, Hutchinson said the meter readers will have less pressure and eventually transition to other functions.