Discussion of utility billing dominated the regular meeting of the Salem board of aldermen Oct. 5, with city administrator Ray Walden discussing the issue as well as taking questions from aldermen.

In Walden’s report, he said information was mailed out last week with July utility bills with explanations about budget billing and contract payments.

“Hopefully those answered some questions that people had,” Walden told the board. “We are also mailing out information to those with accounts four months past due, sharing some options for those to get current before we come out from the emergency declaration. That timing (of the emergency declaration due to COVID-19) has not been determined yet, but we want to avoid shutoffs and work with people to get current as best as we can.”

He said the city is still not assessing penalties.

Utility bills for August will be processed Friday, Walden said, and mailed early next week.

“As we discussed with the utility committee, September bills will be processed at the end of October and from that point forward we should be in a position to resume regular monthly billing,” he added. “If those (deadlines) aren’t met, we will discuss that and bring it to the board’s attention.”

Present at Monday’s meeting were aldermen Kevin James and Greg Parker and alderwoman Rachel Hinderliter. Alderwoman Kim Steelman attended virtually, and mayor Brad Nash was absent.

Walden also told aldermen Monday night that the city administration building was temporarily closed, effective Monday, due to the remodel project. Affected staff are working from remote locations and calls to the regular utility phone numbers are being forwarded and answered by staff, he said.

He also said the admin building dropbox and drive-through are “temporarily out of service” but utility payments can be made in the dropbox to the east of the council chamber doors (in old city hall.)

The Salem News had several phone call queries and in-person visits from citizens Monday morning asking why no one was in the city admin building and the drive-though was closed, as they sought information on utility bills or wanted to pay them.

When contacted by The Salem News mid-morning Oct. 5, Walden said a press release would be sent to The Salem News. About noon, a press release was received and immediately posted on thesalemnewsonline.com and the newspaper’s social media.

During the aldermen meeting, Walden did not detail to aldermen when the decision to close the building Monday was made nor why dissemination of that information to the public was not made public until sometime Monday.

Steelman and James both said they were made aware of the closure via an email at 11:40 a.m. that day.

“While the timing of the closure of the city office was a burden on the citizenry, the action to protect the internal and external interactions appear prudent considering the remodel of the office, recent increases in COVID cases in the area and quarantine of staff personnel,” James, board president, said when contacted following Monday’s meeting. “I am hopeful that the team will be able to return to normal in the coming weeks and the office will be open to full service.”

In-person meetings with utility staff and other admin building staff will resume this Friday, Walden said.

After Walden’s report, Parker said he had received some complaints about a “delay” of utility bill payments being paid by check and wanted to know if that process had been fixed.

“That has,” Walden said. “It was a one-time thing while we were adjusting the contracts. InCode (the city’s utility billing software company) was advising not to process those payments until we had those adjustments done. There should be no delays going forward.”

James asked for an update on errors in bills that have been discussed in previous meetings, and Walden said he did not have that information but would provide it at the next board meeting.

Utility billing has been an ongoing issue since December of 2019, when city of Salem November utility bills were issued weeks late, but the city did not release that information or the cause to local media. After numerous phone calls, emails and social media posts to The Salem News asking about the issue, the newspaper contacted the city, and officials immediately issued a news release.

Utility billing was running a couple of weeks later than normal due to an unexpected need for manual data entry as part of the swap out of electric and water meters for all customers, according to the release last year. Almost a year later, problems with utility billing continues.

In other news from the meeting:

• James asked about progress on work being done at the airport. Walden and public works director Mark Nash said transformers were delayed but came in Friday, but that the city is still waiting on wire that will be needed to complete the project.

James also asked about an earlier request to discuss with the Department of Transportation overgrowth of vegetation on corridors on highways 19 and 32 “to keep it from destroying our streets.” Discussion included cutting and spraying.

“I think we’re within our latitude to trim that, and I will coordinate with public works on that,” Walden said. “Trimming is one thing, but we will need to check with MoDOT on spraying.”

• Walden said fall cleanup following this past weekend’s community wide yard sales continues this week on regular trash days. He also announced city offices will be closed Monday for Columbus Day.

• As part of his report, Walden announced the creation of a working group to improve city communications, both internally and externally. Aldermen were in favor of the committee 4-0.

“I mentioned at a prior meeting the need for improved communication at all levels,” he said.

Walden said the group would include city representatives and review a summary of past communication efforts; assess current messaging needs, target audiences and potential communication channels; and develop a communications plan with measurable objectives, timelines and responsible parties.

He asked for approval of non-staff representatives which would include Donald Dodd, publisher of The Salem News; Stan Podorski with KSMO; Kelsey Schatz with Healthy Dent County; Tabatha Utley with the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce; and Catherine Wynn, managing editor of The Salem News.

• Trick or treating hours were set for 6-8 p.m. Oct. 31 by a 4-0.

• Aldermen went into closed session to discuss real estate.