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Citizen protests out-of-town payment processing
Ceres utility payment box
A city utility payment drop-off box is available outside of Ceres City Hall at Second and Magnolia streets. But those who mail their payments may find late fees given that mail is running slower and the envelope is directed to Suisun City where it is processed.

Shirley Rogers may have learned her lesson about depending on the U.S. Postal Service to get her city payment to its destination on time. But she still remains upset that the city farms out the processing of mailed checks.

The Ceres resident got socked with a 10 percent late fee – it came to $13.40 – because her check didn’t get delivered and recorded in time. She claims that her payment took nine days – from March 28 to April 6 – to arrive at the Suisun City office of Bank of the West, just 73 miles away. Rogers told the City Council that judging by her last payments it takes anywhere from seven to nine days for the payment to be posted.

Ceres Finance Director Leticia Dias said the city began hearing a lot of complaints similar to Rogers’ since the pandemic and government directed lockdowns slowed the delivery of mail.

“That’s when we saw a big increase in the complaints and it was because the mail was taking a lot longer to get to where it was going,” said Dias.

She explained that city utility bill payments sent in the mail are directed to the Bank of the West lock box system in Suisun. The bank receives the payment and posts it to the customer’s account number the same day received and relates that information to the city Finance Department. The city decided years ago to contract with Bank of the West to process payments so as to not overwhelm city staff members, Dias said.

“We were hand entering each payment here in the office so it just kind of lessened the load on the utility clerks,” she noted.

To avoid the potential of late-delivered mail, Ceres residents have the option of depositing their payments in the payment drop-off box at the corner of Second and Magnolia streets ; or walk it into the Finance Department.

“The city is what, five miles across?” said Dias. “So to drop it in the box, it might cost you 50 cents but at least it’s there the same day.”

Residents may also pay online if they set up an account to do so. Automatic payment or one-time payments are offered. Dias also said the city is working on a payment method whereby those with an account will be emailed and if they have their credit or debit card saved on file one click of the mouse will pay the bill. It’s similar to the same process offered by the Modesto Irrigation District.

“It’ll be a lot easier for the customer to pay,” Dias said.

Last year the city took 140,000 payments at the counter in the 2020-21 fiscal year.

The city can waive one late fee per year if a customer asks and they don’t have a history of being late. Rogers’ late fee was waived as she hadn’t been late in 47 years.

“I realize there’s many ways to pay the bill in-person, in the drop box and online,” Rogers had emailed the council, “but I choose to mail my bills. I would like to know why our utility bills, if mailed, are going to Suisun City and not the city of Ceres. We have a finance department. Are they incapable of collecting mail?”

After Monday’s council meeting, Rogers said she remains upset about the city’s payment options.

“Refunding my late fee was fine but what about the other people caught in this mess?” Rogers messaged to the Courier. “All I ask is that they investigate the company processing our checks for utilities because there’s too many late charged being given out.”