When green meets greed
COLUMBIA, Mo 5/2/14 (Beat Byte) -- An online petition asking the Columbia City Council to reduce a $4.60 per transaction utility bill payment fee has reached 810 signatures with no signature gatherers and little publicity.   Petition signers have left over 100 angry, frustrated, and well-reasoned comments on the petition's website.  

"This charge is not necessary," writes petition signer Kim Politte.  "It shouldn't cost anything to pay a bill electronically."

Council members approved the fee last September to offset credit card processing charges.  But petition organizers say it goes too far.   

"We see this fee as a penalty to Columbia residents that look for the greener option," says organizer Austin Kolb.  It is a "universal charge for all online payments including direct bank transfers (which our estimated cost is 30 cents per transaction).  This means the city will collect $51.60 in annual profit from every residence in Columbia that pays their bill online."   

Signers say City Hall should not discourage going green.   "The 4.50 fee is a 10% increase on my utility bill if I decide to use the greener option of online bill pay," wrote Nate Thompson

By pushing ratepayers away from paper- and car-free online options, the utility payment fee illustrates a fundamental hypocrisy among so-called "progressive" Council members, who now hold a 4-3 majority.   While they push for initiatives such as hiring a "sustainability director," they frequently forsake green goals when money is on the line.   The nearly $25 million recently spent on downtown parking garages is a striking example.

"We need to make our greener options MORE AVAILABLE," wrote petition signer Duell Lauderdale

Other signers agreed.  "I should not be charged to when I try to reduce paper use," added Ryan Collins.

"I even asked them why I was being charged this when they are saving on paper, stamps and time," wrote Jodi Sprigg.  "I went back to paper.  Let them pay for the extra time, paper and stamps."

The online payment fee also hits low-income ratepayers disproportionately.  "I am disabled and can't always go to the places to pay my bills," explained petition signer Sandra Dailing.   "Paying online is easier for me, but I cannot afford the cost on my limited income!"

Older and single persons are also affected.  "I am retiring and need every penny I have," wrote Mary Tuley

"I am a single mom who can barely afford to my all my bills as it is," added Brook Lockett.   "I am also conscious of doing my part for the environment.   I feel that an extra charge for paying my bill online is ridiculous!" 
Kolb also worries the fee -- like other utility rates -- is subsidizing big customers.  "I think this has something to do with offsetting credit card fees by really heavy users like the University," he explains.  "Why not just charge a percentage of the total for those who pay via credit card?" 

But the fee is hitting people who don't use credit.    "The new fee is ridiculous for those of us who pay regularly online," says Robin Nuttall.  "If they want to charge a credit card fee that is okay.  But to make that fee for every type of payment, including those which do not cost the city, is simply gouging." 
Petition signers say the fee will cost them upwards of sixty dollars annually,  so to save greenbacks, many are leaving the green option behind.    

"I've gone back to mailing my check in," wrote petition signer Meredith Hoenes.  "Forty four cents is a lot less than $4.60."