Avista Utilities has filed with the Idaho Public Utilities Commission (Docket Nos. AVU-E-16-01 and AVU-G-16-010), the Oregon Public Utility Commission (Docket No. UM-1759), and the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (Docket Nos. UE-160071 and UG-160072) for authority to eliminate the “convenience fee” that residential customers are charged when they remit electric and gas bills using a payments card online or by telephone.
To date, customers who have paid their bills using credit or debit cards have remitted a $3.50 per-transaction fee is paid to a third-party vendor, while those who paid by checks sent through the mail have been “fee-free.”
The Spokane-based, investor-owned utility serves about 370,000 electric customers and 232,000 natural gas customers in eastern Washington and northern Idaho. Avista Utilities also serves about 98,000 natural gas customers in Oregon.
Avista maintains that it can process the online and telephonic payments for as little as $1.50 per transaction – but would collect that amount in rates only if it is later determined that the company and its shareholders were losing money as a result of the fee-free payment program. In Idaho, alone, Avista estimates it will cost about $195,000 per year to process the payments for electric customers and $120,000 per year for natural gas customers.
But it will be worth it, the utility claims, because the convenience fee is “one of the largest frustrations” expressed by its growing number of customers who pay electronically or by telephone. Only about 38 percent of customers mailed in payments in 2015.
“As customer expectations change and more payments are done electronically, utility companies are beginning to offer fee-free payment programs for their residential customers for all methods of payment,” Avista said in its filings.
Indeed, the utility said, many local service providers already do not charge a convenience fee, which also leads to customers’ dissatisfaction or frustration for paying such a charge. NW Natural Gas and Portland General Electric are two investor owned utilities that offer a fee-free payment program to residential customers. In Avista’s Spokane service territory, customers of Vera Water & Power, Inland Power & Light, Modern Electric, and the City of Spokane do not pay a fee.
The utility hoping to begin the fee elimination program in the first half of this year.