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SERVICE FEE TACKED ON TO VILLAGE HALL BILL PAYMENTS

The long-standing practice of paying utility bills at the Sloan Village Hall will cost residents an additional $1 in service fees for each gas and phone payment made there.

The new policy, which became effective Aug. 1, was prompted by the village's conversion from a manual to an electronic system. Under the switch, utility payments paid to the village clerk would be sent electronically to the utility company's bank.

Western Union, which provides the electronic system, requires the $1 service fee. The village agreed to use the Western Union service after National Fuel advised the village clerk's office that it would only accept payments from the village if sent electronically.

Collecting bills at the village municipal building has often been criticized by the state comptroller's office, which has suggested the practice be discontinued. Past village officials have ignored the criticism, agreeing that the practice benefits the many senior citizens in the village who lack transportation or checking accounts to pay the bills at other locations or by mail.

The village does receive a transaction fee for each bill collected ranging from five cents to 50 cents, depending on the utility. Payments for water bills and electric bills are not sent electronically and consequently are not impacted by the new service charge.

"Personally, (collecting residents' bills) doesn't pay," Sloan Mayor Kenneth Pokorski said. "I didn't start it. It's still here."

One of the first electronic payments made to National Fuel's bank was never properly recorded by the utility company, according to village officials. This resulted in as many as 89 village residents receiving past due bills, all of whom made payment at the municipal building.

Village Clerk Christine Dodds said the payments were electronically sent on time, but the problem was at National Fuel, which failed to properly credit the accounts.

Julie Coppola, a spokeswoman for National Fuel, said the bills could not be updated because the village was holding payment stubs that should have been sent to the utility. Ms. Dodds has denied the allegation, claiming a National Fuel employee acknowledged that the "mix-up" was at the utility company.

Nonetheless, the bills have since been properly recorded and residents were told to ignore any past due bills or penalties and pay only the current month's bill.

Ms. Dodds said the $1 service fee has triggered some complaints from residents, but others still feel that paying at the village clerk's office is a convenience and a bargain.

Ms. Coppola said village residents have several alternative methods of payment but they should use "whatever they feel comfortable with." She added that the utility company had reduced its collection outlets as a cost-savings measure. National Fuel, she said, was paying in excess of $1 million annually in collection processing fees.

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