Phone lines at Tacoma Public Utilities were so jammed this week that frustrated customers called employees all over the city, trying to find out how to pay their bills or get questions about them answered.
Some customers were mailed duplicate bills for hundreds of dollars. Others waited 45 minutes or more in frustration as the customer service line clogged the lobby at the utility's headquarters.
The problems were brought about by the rocky introduction of a $50 million citywide computer system on Nov. 3.
To cope, customer service manager William "Bill" Schatz said the utility has extended workers' shifts and will hire 10 temporary customer service employees as soon as possible.
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The problems were so great early this week that Schatz sent out a citywide e-mail declaring, "We need your help."
He asked city employees who get calls intended for the utility to tell customers about alternate ways to conduct their utility business - over a special 24-hour phone line, at nine PayStations or over the Internet.
Transferring calls to the main customer service line was backfiring, he explained. They were clogging all utility phone lines and making it nearly impossible to get other business done.
Schatz and utilities director Mark Crisson said they expected difficulties during the first few months of the computer switchover and built in the alternate payment methods to help make the transition easier for customers.
But that was little consolation to University Place truck driver Alex Alonzo, who took time off work to show up Thursday at the utility's headquarters and square away a problem with his bill.
"I've been trying to get hold of them for two days, and all I get is, 'All circuits are busy,'" a peeved Alonzo said.
He had to talk to a live body, he said, "because the bill changed, and I don't understand what I owe or how much I owe or when I owe."
The utility bills generated under the new computer system have quite a different look than their predecessors did.
Betty Ramey, who just moved from Tacoma to Auburn, couldn't get through on the phone lines, either.
"We have a big (utility bill) refund coming," she said, "and I can't even get hold of anyone on the phone. Somebody should at least be answering some questions."
Customer Paul Jauron, meanwhile, was neither steamed about the wait nor worried about the duplicate bill he got in the mail.
"It's probably just a glitch," he said as he headed in to rectify the situation.
At 11 a.m. Thursday, there was virtually no waiting at the utility's lobby. He strolled inside and was headed back to his car within two minutes.
"They said the computer did it," when he asked about the duplicate bill he got in the mail just a week after his real bill arrived.
"They told me to just throw the second one away, 'cause it doesn't matter,'" he said.
Schatz said he expects to have the new customer service representatives hired, trained and on the job by the end of January, but he didn't know how long they'll be needed or how much the help will cost.
He asked customers for continuing patience during the transition.
If you have business to take care of in person, avoid the busiest days, Mondays and Fridays, the first and last of the month, and come in the afternoon if you can.
Karen Jones, spokeswoman for the city's Business Systems Improvement Project, said the latest bulge in customer complaints likely was exacerbated by the resumption of warning bills and disconnect notices.
The utility stopped sending them for a while during the computer transition to ease the load on customer service representatives, she said.
To further complicate things, some customers got duplicate bills, but Jones didn't know how many received them.
More than 186,000 bills have been printed and mailed since the new system went on line, she said. About 1,000 warning bills - sent when a customer is 11 days past due - go out each day. And 400 to 500 disconnect notices are mailed on an average day.
When you add up the phone problems, duplicate bills, new-look bills and the loss of a customer favorite - the bar graph that charted past electric use - utilities officials aren't surprised customers are frustrated.
"We're concerned about it," Crisson said. "At certain times of the day, there are delays and it's difficult to get into the (phone) queue. And when you get a busy signal, that can be very frustrating."
Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659
SIDEBAR: Paying your bills without the wait
There are several ways to avoid long lines in person or on the telephone when paying your Tacoma Public Utilities bills or taking care of other business, utilities officials say: Try calling Service Plus at 253-502-8608* to:
• Report a power outage or electrical problem.
• Get your account balance.
• Make a payment using Visa or MasterCard.
• Get a list of PayStation locations.
• Get transferred to a customer service rep during business hours.
* Note: The Service Plus line is sometimes so busy you'll get an "all circuits are busy now message." Keep trying.
Pay your utility bills using cash, check, money order, Visa or Mastercard. The locations are:
Tacoma Public Utilities
South 35th Street and Union Avenue, 24 hours.
• 15805 Pacific Ave. S., 5 a.m. to 1 a.m.
• 1624 E. 72nd St., 24 hours
• 10105 224th Street East, Graham, 5 a.m. to 1 a.m.
• 11501 Canyon Road East, Puyallup, 24 hours
• 10223 Gravelly Lake Drive S.W., Lakewood, 24 hours
• 2109 S.W. 336th St. (21st Avenue and 336th Street), Federal Way, 5 a.m. to 1 a.m.
• 1112 S. M St., 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
• 2637 N. Pearl St., 24 hours
On the Net
Go online to www.tacomaservices.org for access to your utility accounts and information on how to pay your bills, request services and take care of other business online.
Some older browsers can't access tacomaservices.org, so you might have to update your software or use a newer machine.
SOURCE: Tacoma Public Utilities