LAS CRUCES – For El Paso Electric utility customers who rely on in-person payment centers in New Mexico and Texas to pay their bills, big changes are coming. Over the last two months, El Paso Electric has quietly begun nudging customers away from in-person payments and onto their online bill collection systems.
According to EPE’s Regional Director for Governmental Affairs Eric Montgomery, the move is an attempt to eliminate in-person payments.
“A lot of this is really due to new technologies and advancements that we are implementing,” Montgomery told the Doña Ana Board of County Commissioners Tuesday.
According to EPE’s Director of Customer Care Robert Heimer, less than 5 percent of all utility customers pay in person at one of the four branch offices in New Mexico and Texas.
“The majority of our customer traffic we see… has been mainly over the phone,” Heimer said. “It’s also been growing online.”
Heimer said closing the branches comes down to saving money. In addition, since so few people use the centers, Heimer said EPE wants to focus on meeting people via other access points.
In Texas, EPE has already shut down in-person payment centers. That change occurred on Jan. 13. The two Las Cruces centers will end in-person collections on Feb. 10.
How can customers pay their bills?
For the 5 percent of in-person payers, EPE has a few alternatives for bill payment.
Via EPE’s website, utility customers can pay via credit card, ATM/debit card, or electronic check. For every bill, this option tacks on a $1.50 to $2.35 fee.
Another option includes using payment kiosks in El Paso, Van Horn and Las Cruces. However, the kiosks may have a fee depending on how customers pay. In addition, third-party payment agencies like CheckFree or Western Union accept payments with an attached cost. According to a news release from EPE, over 100 third-party payment agencies are in EPE’s service area. Stores like Walmart, Dollar General and many grocery stores host these agencies.
With the payment centers closing, third-party payment agencies and kiosks will be the only way to pay electric bills with cash.
Utility customers can also arrange a bank draft with EPE via their website. In that system, the utility takes the money directly from utility customers’ bank accounts when the bill is due. There is no fee for this method.
EPE also accepts mailed checks via a stamped envelope to their office in El Paso at El Paso Electric, P.O. Box 982, El Paso, Texas 79960. Other than the envelope and stamp cost, this method has no fee.
Lastly, EPE accepts payment via the phone from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday or through their mobile app. Both of those methods have fees in the range of $1.95 to $2.35.
What about the workers?
Across the four locations, EPE employs 21 workers. None will be laid off, Heimer said.
Instead, EPE will create new roles for the workers.
“We’re currently working to make sure that everyone working at a branch can successfully transition into other channels,” Heimer said.
Heimer didn’t specify how the branch workers’ jobs would change. However, he said that increased online or over-the-phone customer communications have created a demand for EPE’s attention in those areas and suggested EPE would train the workers in those areas. He also said that many would begin working from home.
“By reutilizing those employees, we’re going to be able to do more for our customers than we are today,” Heimer said.
Heimer acknowledged that relationships between customers and EPE representatives at the in-person centers run deep.
“Customers bring (workers) treats and gifts and ask ‘how are you kids’ and things of that nature,” Heimer said. “There’s a big relationship there.”
But, ultimately, Heimer said those workers would have to get used to working with people without seeing them in person.
Justin Garcia covers crime, courts and public safety. He can be reached via email at JEGarcia@lcsun-news.com.