Online bill payment back in for Franklin

Published 6:25 am Tuesday, March 26, 2019

City treasurer estimates system to go live in 60 days

In January, Franklin’s City Council voted to put plans to offer city residents the ability to pay tax and utility bills via the city’s website on indefinite hold, following a disagreement over whether the city should continue to absorb the associated credit and debit card convenience fees or pass those costs onto payers. However, City Treasurer Dinah Babb now claims that the vote should not have happened.

According to a March 20 memorandum from City Manager Amanda Jarratt to the members of council, Babb recently informed the city administration that the convenience fee issue should only have been brought to the council for informational purposes. Per state code, the city treasurer has the authority over all city collections policies, Babb said, and therefore, the decision on whether or not to implement online bill payment and how to handle the associated convenience fees is hers alone to make.

Prior to the January vote, the city had anticipated offering online bill payments by mid-March of this year as part of its plans to upgrade its billing software to a point-and-click graphical user interface system developed by the company Edmunds & Associates. Plans to upgrade the city’s AS400 mainframe to Edmunds had been in the works since 2014.

With the decision now back in her hands, the treasurer plans to resume the city’s efforts to implement the online bill payment component included with the Edmunds software. This component is designed to use the Web Inquiry and Payment Portal, better known as WIPP, as its credit card processing service. WIPP is supported by Chase Bank, Babb said.

WIPP charges a 2.95-percent convenience fee on every transaction made using a credit card or debit card, regardless of the type of card and whether the transaction is made online or in-person at City Hall. It also charges a flat fee of $1.05 to process electronic checks.

Currently, the city processes all credit and debit cards through Sun Trust Bank and absorbs the associated convenience fees into its annual budget. Sun Trust charges a different convenience fee for each type of credit and debit card, with the average fee being around 1.17 percent of the transaction. Absorbing these fees cost the city just over $65,000 in fiscal year 2017-2018. But once the online bill payment option is made live, the fees WIPP charges will be passed onto tax and bill payers.

Babb emphasized that the WIPP convenience fees would only apply to those who choose to pay using a credit or debit card or an electronic check. Those who wish to pay with cash, a regular check, a money order, or making payments through their bank would not see a convenience fee added to their bills.

We are not the only ones that are assessing a fee,” she told the members of council, pointing out that Southampton County charges a 3-percent convenience fee and Isle of Wight County charges 2.4 percent.

Babb added that while the passing of convenience fees onto residents has become the norm in most localities, Franklin remains one of the few in Virginia that does not currently offer the ability to pay tax and utility bills online.

The city began taking payments using the Edmunds software, albeit without offering payment online as an option, on March 15, two days after the originally anticipated March 13 debut. When Mayor Frank Rabil asked for an updated timeframe on implementing online payments, she estimated that the WIPP component could go live in the next 60 days. The go-live date is also when the new convenience fees would take effect.

Rabil seemed agreeable to Babb’s plan, and pointed out that the city would have needed to absorb an estimated $81,000 in convenience fees during the 2019-2020 fiscal year had it continued doing business as usual. However, councilmen Bobby Cutchins and Greg McLemore both asked that she include in her communications with city residents on the matter that the online system and new convenience fees were being implemented by choice of the city treasurer, and not the city council.

Now if I walk into city hall and use by debit card to pay my utility bill, I’m going to be paying a higher fee,” McLemore said. “I was trying to avoid that cost going to people who didn’t use online, now it’s going to everybody [who uses debit or credit cards].”

This is something that the citizens of Franklin are requesting,” Babb said of her reasons in proceeding in spite of the earlier council vote. “Our citizens need us to move to the 21st century.”

As for how residents will be notified of the new fees, she said that signs will be placed in the payment windows at City Hall, and that there will be a line item added to the city’s tax and utility bills that states that there is now a convenience fee for those who choose to pay by credit or debit card, or e-checks. There will also be instructions on the city’s website to teach residents who wish to pay their bills online how to do so.