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City Council Takes Issue With Cleveland Public Power's Customer Service

A report published last month criticized Cleveland Public Power for systemic issues in its operations. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Cleveland Public Power's main building.

Cleveland City Council Tuesday raised questions about customer service at Cleveland Public Power at the latest in  an ongoing series of hearings launched after  a consultant’s report was highly critical of CPP.

The initial report, prepared by NewGen Strategies and Solutions, found CPP “mired in systemic, performance and financial issues.” The 110-year-old power provider is currently overhauling its billing system and working to improve data collection, staff training and overall operations, said Public Utilities Director Robert Davis.

“CPP remains cognizant of the struggles facing many of our customers, and every decision that we make keeps them in consideration,” Davis said.

Customer service is not housed in just one department, said CPP Commissioner Joy Perry, but spread throughout several departments, including engineering, sales and operations. The call center receives roughly 208,000 calls annually, Perry said. One-third of customers pay their bill online, she said, while 110,000 pay in person.

The number of people going to the CPP lobby to pay bills raises questions about the wait time, said Councilman Brian Kazy.

"I know that the meters outside are only 30 minutes, I believe it's 30 minutes or an hour long," Kazy said. "I'm wondering if anybody knows the average wait time if someone goes in to pay their utility."

The lobby area is split into two areas, Perry said, with a line for residents to quickly pay bills and an area for those with more complicated issues.

“Generally speaking, most people can run in that lobby and, in 30 minutes, leave, for their service to be done,” Perry said. “But it depends on the complexity of the problem.”

Some residents have voiced concerns about inconsistencies in how individual employees address customer complaints, Kazy said.

"The individuals who answer the phone, one of the biggest complaints we get is, one, they don't know who to refer to, or two, you might get a different answer depending on who you talk to," Kazy said.

Every employee goes through the same training process, which emphasizes how to work with customers to solve issues, Perry said. Employees go through a six-week class for initial training and shadow current representatives for another four to six weeks, he said. CPP also works with local partners, such as the Department of Aging, to connect customers with resources and handle additional issues outside power problem, Perry said.

For billing issues, Perry said employees are trained to ask a series of questions and go over a customer’s history to determine where the problem originated.

CPP is piloting a program for remote connections and disconnections across 360 meters, Perry said, and making other changes to improve communication with customers, including reestablishing the use of orange tags to notify residents of coming disconnections.

Delinquent customers need to be better informed about available aid to help with utility bills, said Councilman Tony Brancatelli, despite the current moratorium on shutoffs during the pandemic. Residents will face larger bills when the moratorium is lifted, he said, and there won’t be the same amount of support.

“The moratorium is going to be lifted, just like our rental evictions moratorium is going to be lifted,” Brancatelli said. “People are going to be scrambling because they’re going to get shutoff notices.”

CPP is aware of the impact of the ongoing pandemic on residents, Davis said, and is connecting those unable to pay bills with appropriate resources. The company is not expecting a spike in shutoffs when the current moratorium lifts, Davis said, due to resources such as the federally-funded Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP).

CPP is also monitoring the number of customers at risk of shutoff, Davis said, and connecting those who are eligible with resources ahead of the moratorium being lifted.

“When we talk about what may be out there in January, and how they may be delinquent in January, right now I would say 85 to 90 percent of the bills have been paid,” Davis said.