Local UniSource customers will once again be able to pay their bills in person without being charged an additional fee after the Nogales City Council unanimously approved a settlement agreement with the utility following a 21-month-long legal battle.
“It was a hard-fought battle, there was a lot of trivial offerings that UniSource was making but our legal staff and the administration, the city manger, they never gave in. We wanted an office and we held it down until we reached a settlement where we got pretty much what we wanted,” Mayor John Doyle said in a phone interview Thursday morning.
“There’s still a lot of people that are used to paying on a cash basis. (UniSource is) going to continue to take cash payments and deal with people’s concerns,” he added. “(Customers are) going to get service, and that’s what we were fighting for.”
The settlement, which was approved during the council’s regular session meeting on Wednesday, calls for the establishment of a payment counter at a location within city limits by June 30. UniSource customers will be able to pay their gas and electric bills at the counter with either cash, personal check or money order without incurring a surcharge like those currently charged to customers who pay their bills by phone or in cash at outlets including Wal-Mart and Food City.
In addition, UniSource agreed to pay the city $100,000, which will go into the General Fund.
The company closed its customer service center on Mastick Way in April 2013, sparking complaints from residents and resistance from the council, largely over the inconvenience it caused for customers accustomed to paying their bills at the center. During a council meeting in June 2013, members of the council said they were especially concerned with how the change would affect the elderly and low-income residents without easy access to computers or the internet.
After more than a year of negotiations, the council members, with the exception of then-Councilmen Doyle and Cesar Parada, indicated in October 2014 that they would consider a payment kiosk in the City Hall lobby as a possible solution. However, that idea never came to fruition and in January 2015, the council notified Larry Lucero, senior director of government and external affairs at UniSource, that even if the kiosk option were accepted, the matter would have to be presented to city voters for approval.
In February 2015, Lucero published a guest opinion in the Nogales International in which he blasted the “misguided campaign for a bill payment lobby.”
“Unlike some folks who have expressed opinions about local utility matters, employees at UniSource Energy Services actually talk to our Nogales customers every day,” Lucero wrote, adding: “While a handful of city officials seem fixated on this topic, our customers are far more concerned with the amount they owe for their utility bills than with a place they might go to pay them.”
Three months later, the City of Nogales filed a lawsuit against UniSource in Santa Cruz County Superior Court, arguing that the company breached the state-sanctioned, city voter-approved franchise agreement between the two entities because it requires the company to maintain a customer service center within city limits where customers can make payments without incurring fees, as well as voice concerns and request immediate service.
According to the settlement approved Wednesday, the new payment counter must be located within city limits, east of Interstate 19 and west of – but not on – Patagonia Highway. The counter must be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday and staffed by at least one UniSource employee. If located inside a government building or any building not owned by UniSource, the counter will be closed at any time the building is closed to the public.
The payment counter must remain open until June 30, 2024 and once the agreement expires, UniSource will not be obligated under the franchise agreement “to maintain a payment counter or public payment lobby of any kind at any current or future UNS office for the purpose of accepting payments including in-person cash, personal check or money order payments for bills from UNS electric and gas customers, or be obligated to expand the scope of customer services beyond those currently offered at UNS’s Mariposa Road office,” the settlement offer reads.
The franchise agreement between UniSource and the city expires in 2026, and City Attorney Jose Luis Machado said that in order to reach an agreement, the city had to compromise that for the last two years of the franchise agreement the company wouldn’t be required to maintain a service center. He added that when the franchise agreement is renegotiated, all terms, including the establishment of a payment center, will be subject to renegotiation.
As part of the agreement, the city also agreed to dismiss its lawsuit with prejudice, meaning it can’t be brought again, within 10 business days of signing the agreement.
“The parties agree and acknowledge that this settlement agreement is the result of a compromise and shall not be construed as an admission by any party of any fact, liability, obligation or responsibility on their part or on the part of their related parties,” the settlement, which was attached to the meeting’s agenda packet, reads.