Utility concerns continue in Salem, Mo. after customers receive 97-day bill due in less than a month

Many worry about a lack of transparency from city leaders
Updated: Jun. 10, 2021 at 10:38 PM CDT
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SALEM, Mo. (KY3) - It is not a new concern to many people living in Salem, but it is one that seems to still be sticking around.

Several utility customers in the area are anxious after receiving one bill for a bit more than three months of service. Their concerns come more than a year after a large meter upgrade project.

Several people told KY3 in person and through email that they were worried about looming shutoffs. The biggest issue many described -- confusion and a lack of transparency from city leaders. The recent bill drew some mixed reactions.

“I laughed, I absolutely laughed,” utility customer Michael Camden said.

”Lot of us don’t just have a thousand dollars to pay out of nowhere,” customer David Doyle said.

Many who received their bills were astonished.

”Everybody that’s got a bill, you know, that’s beyond their means you know, I mean a lot of these bills are more than most people’s paychecks around here,“ Camden said.

”I mean it’s stressful,” customer Laura Hammons said. “It’s overwhelming. And it’s overwhelming for the citizens here.”

Those bills range from person to person and from family to family. Some of those bills are around $800, while others approach a bit more than $2,000. Several living in the area said they felt like they did not get enough early notice.

”That makes it hard to budget,” Doyle said. “Especially those of us that don’t have lots of money. You know it makes it very hard to budget what your bills are going to be if you don’t know what it is.“

”I mean it’s imperative so that a family can budget,” Hammons said. “I mean everyone budgets accordingly, you know. You can kind of anticipate that you need to save.”

While this most recent bill has been very stressful for some folks, they said it is not a new issue.

”Oh my gosh. Right after they put them meters in, it’s been an issue since then,” Doyle said. “Their billing has been way behind and now we’re three months behind and they want us to pay that three months to get ‘caught up.’ “

The city spent about $1.5 million to replace thousands of water and electric meters, but city leaders previously told KY3 the upgrade did not go as planned. The pandemic slowed things down.

On Thursday, KY3 tried to get the city administrator to explain what is behind the problem and what is being done to help citizens through this. Attempts were made both over the phone and in person.

Each time, KY3 was told the city administrator was not in the office. Several people living in Salem said they feel the utility hotline has not been very helpful either.

”Check this out, check this out and check that out,” Camden described. “And it all just leads to nothing as far as getting help goes or getting any kind of answers to why they’re doing this.”

Camden, Doyle, Hammons and several others who approached KY3 on Thursday said their biggest concern was a lack of transparency from city leaders.

Back in January we asked why more information about the upgrade process and billing issues had not been made available.

Alderman Kevin James said, “I would struggle with that question. We have provided many opportunities for news releases, information on Facebook as well as the phones have been open during the height of COVID.”

He also provided an explanation as to why 200 meters still have yet to be installed at the time, which delayed completion of the upgrade.

“There’s been multiple delays in meters because of COVID. Some of them are stuck in a warehouse in New Jersey, batteries in China, literally that’s part of the delays from mid March until today,” he said. “The software hasn’t talked. If you go out and research the different software we use you’ll see this throughout facilities in the US.

KY3 said, “Sure that makes sense. However the implementation of the new meters and software was to occur at the end of 2019 and resolved by January 2020. The pandemic didn’t really didn’t start picking up here until March a few months after. Here we are again. My question, a year later, they’re still no further along in receiving the proper billing that they were promised, they say a year ago...”

We were interrupted before completing out question.

James said, “I understand the question. There’s more complexity and granularity to the answer. It’s a very dynamic situation. COVID has, you know that, you report on it every day I bet. So, we have been challenged on all fronts, let alone how we meet together. If there’s and issue we’ve tried to address it. I’ve met with people myself multiple times. Sometimes the same people over and over. I don’t like the situation. I am beyond frustrated. Okay. I’m a citizen. Several of these people are a citizen. Not everybody in here is a citizen, right, in Salem. How do you deal with a situation when it’s out of your control?”

As for the current bill due on June 23, the city said residents can make payment arrangements before July 1st if they have issues. Salem aldermen also approved a 5% rebate for water and electric usage from February to May if customers pay by June 20th. The city is also offering an additional 1% discount if the entire bill is paid at once

A group of people in Salem have also started a petition for a state audit of the city. Again, KY3 did try to get answers from city leaders and got no response.

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