Officials approve e-payments, despite fee

Newton residents will soon have the option to pay their utility bills electronically, but they will pay a $3.60 fee to do so.

Despite apprehensive comments from a concerned Newton citizen, the Newton City Council unanimously agreed Tuesday to provide an electronic payment service to its city customers through NCO Financial Services next year. The one-year contract with NCO will allow customers to pay their monthly utility bills on the Internet or on the phone with debit cards, credit cards or electronic checks. For their service, NCO charges a $3.60 flat fee per transaction.

The fee is not going to be absorbed by the city, but passed on to customers.

“That’s a fee by the service provider to us, and it’s not a fee that we’re charging,” said Newton City Councilman Robert C. Abernethy Jr. “It’s a fee that we’re being charged. With us trying to keep the prices down as low as we possibly can for the citizens, we don’t have a whole lot of wiggle room to absorb that fee for the folks who are taking advantage of that convenience.”

Visa and MasterCard electronic transactions will be permitted. The city opted to eliminate American Express from the service because the fee would have increased to $3.95.

Before approving the one-year service contract Tuesday, Newton resident Eddie Ide said he recommended the council vote no on the new service.

“The proposed fee of $3.60 per online credit card fee detracts from the otherwise good pattern to the fiscal responsiveness,” Ide said, adding that the new fee would cost service users an “additional” $43 more each year.

Newton Mayor Robert Mullinax interrupted Ide, telling him the service will provide additional services to Newton citizens — nothing else.

“It’s not additional, this is something we are getting ready to offer (citizens),” Mullinax said. “We are not imposing this upon anyone. This is a service we are getting ready to offer, and there is a cost to that service.”

Citizens can still pay their bills with cash and checks, and the current payment methods will not change. The electronic payments are an additional option. However, Newton customers will not be able to make face-to-face debit or credit transactions at city hall because of statutes preventing those governmental procedures, said Serina Hinson, Newton finance director.

The city did have the option to insert a telephone in the city hall lobby that would solely be used for over-the-phone transactions, but council members voted against it. The lobby phone would just be used to call the service number and would still charge a $3.60 fee per transaction.

NCO Financial Services was awarded the bid for the electronic service above four other companies. While the lowest bid was $2.95 per electronic transaction, Hinson said that fee would increase as the bill did.

NCO’s service fee is flat.

“No matter the payment amount, it will cost the user $3.60,” Hinson said. “That is a flat fee regardless of what the bill is. If they have a $1,000 bill, it’s going to be $3.60. If they have a bill less than $250, their fee will still be $3.60.”

The city council said they hope to post information about the electronic payment service online at

The Newton City Council also approved:

A budget amendment for the 2006 Target Community Development Block Grant to move $318,650 from the sewer line item to the water line item. Despite the move, officials said no additional money will be required of the city.

A bid award in the amount of $120,900 for the construction and purchase of a training trailer from Fire Training Structures LLC that will be used by Newton Fire Department. A FEMA grant will pay for $111,600 toward the trailer while the city will pay $12,400.