Columbia residents struggle with new online utilities payment system

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COLUMBIA – New account numbers, confusing directions and more than 30-minute-long wait times have left many residents upset about the transition process from Columbia Utilities' 20-year-old online payment system to its new one.

Veronica and Darvin Lemme are long time residents of Columbia who have experienced the transition of utility payment services first hand. Veronica said the problems started after they moved across town.

“We got a notice saying our utilities were going to be shut off, so we were a little freaked out. What I didn’t realize was when you move, your account number changes,” Veronica Lemme said. 

But, the Lemmes are not the only ones who have a new account number. 

“The new system will have leading zeros in the customer and location numbers. So the customer has to, essentially, resign in if they have been using it in the past. They have to go back in and set it back up,” said Jim Windsor, Assistant Director of Columbia Utilities. 

Windsor said many residents are confused because the new system requires two number combinations: the first which should be eight digits long and the second which should be seven digits long, totaling to 15 digits. However, residents' two numbers as assigned don’t usually add up to 15 total digits. Therefore, residents must add in zeros when entering their utility billing number for the system to properly recognize their account number.    

Adding the extra zeros to their account number is a problem the Lemmes know all too well.

“I called and waited on hold for probably 30 minutes but then gave up. I decided to try again the next morning, and that is when I read the directions again, I realized you had to enter the extra zeros,” Veronica Lemme said.

Windsor said the city is also redoing the utility bills design to allow for more streamlined process.

“The new bills will have a layout with the leading zeros, meaning residents will only have to enter the number they see, and they will no longer have to add the extra zeros,” Windsor said. 

The utility bills with the new design are expected to roll out starting Friday. 

Even with long wait times, Veronica Lemme said the city was helpful during the payment process. 

“I finally got through and when I did get a chance to talk to someone they were really apologetic and helped me figure it all out, so that made things easier.”

Customers who use autopay do not need to change anything on their accounts. Customers in danger of getting disconnected should get a notice of late payment before shut-off.