Seattle's population is routinely described as among the tech-savviest in the country. Its mayor has gained credibility as an environmental leader who has pushed municipal employees to go paperless whenever possible.
And yet the city's two giant, publicly owned utilities remain at the back of the class when it comes to paperless billing. Combined, Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities annually send out 3.6 million bills via snail mail, at a cost of roughly $875,000 in postage, city officials say.
SPU spokeswoman Karen Reed said that moving to e-billing "has been a priority since 2001" but that it will be next year at the earliest before the city is ready to offer the service to its more than 375,000 customers. Many other large utilities and communication companies have been offering e-billing for years, including Comcast, Puget Sound Energy, Verizon, Qwest, and numerous financial institutions.
Reed stressed that switching is unlikely to save the city a bundle, at least not initially. The trend, she said, is for people to continue to want a paper bill even when an electronic bill is available, and that less than 10 percent who opt for e-billing let go of paper. That's backed up by Verizon spokesman Kevin Laverty, who said only 5.3 percent of the company's landline customers have chosen e-billing have also said no to paper.
Nonetheless, said Reed, "saving paper and any associated dollars is in line with the values of our organizations and our customers."
For now the option of going paperless remains unavailable to Seattle customers, who face a rate hike next year for garbage, sewer, and drainage services.
Under a joint operation, City Light owns the billing system for both utilities, and SPU runs the call center. Since December 2004, the city's menu of online services has included the option of letting residents pay their electric and water/sewer/garbage bills. The catch: Customers do not receive email notification when a bill is due, and cannot opt out of receiving snail-mail bills even if they elect to pay online.
Even so, City Light, which sends out 2.5 million bills annually, last year received more than 460,000 online payments, and SPU, which sends out 1.1 million, received about 253,000. The prospect of going to an electronic system is particularly appealing, officials added, for larger commercial customers who could also download info about their consumption rates to help manage finances.
Seattleites certainly seem relatively environmentally conscious, and sufficiently outfitted technologically to handle online transactions. The most recent city-commissioned study, performed in 2004, showed that nearly eight of 10 residents had home Internet access and that more than four in 10 had broadband access.
So why is it taking forever?
It's been more than a decade since then ex-Microsoftie and now former city council member Tina Podlodowski started goosing the city to get more technologically with it.
Part of the delay, said Reed, is tied to "making sure that when we implement (e-billing) we can provide for the security of people's information. ...There is an aggressive movement to make it (e-billing) happen in 2008."
On a personal note, the impetus for this story took place last spring, when our family was preparing for an overseas trip. We arranged for renters to live in our Seattle home and agreed to cover utilities as part of the deal.
Among more than half a dozen companies and services, SPU and City Light stood alone as incapable of sending e-bills. To avoid becoming delinquent, SPU said our best bet was to pay in advance.
As a private citizen, I emailed City Council member Richard Conlin, whose committee oversees SPU, to complain about the backwardness. "I agree," he replied, "the City is woefully deficient in not doing this. It is annoying how slow it seems that things move."