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How to keep up with bills without relying on the Postal Service

Posted Friday, Nov. 09, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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lieber James and Connie Ford count on mailed statements from companies to help them remember when to pay their bills. That's how I used to do it until I learned the hard way.

Too many things can go wrong. The bill might get lost in the mail. Or it could get stuck inside an advertising flyer that gets thrown away. Today, one missed credit card payment can launch an interest rate on a debt into the stratosphere, not to mention steep late fees.

The Fort Worth couple pay their Tarrant County property taxes every three months. When a recent quarterly bill didn't arrive in the mail, they forgot to pay. They say it's the first time that ever happened.

They wrote The Watchdog seeking help reversing a $56 penalty. The tax assessor's office says it mailed them two statements but both were returned to the post office. The Fords wonder how that could happen. Who knows who is right? It doesn't matter. The law says we are responsible for paying our taxes on time.

My problem is similar. Several times a year, one of my bills will fall through the cracks (like under the sofa). As problems with the Postal Service grew, I saw that my old method of a stack of bills near the checkbook was suddenly flawed.

E-bills scare me because emails can be overlooked or lost in a junk mail folder. I tried a $5 iPhone app to keep track of monthly bills, but entering the data was a lot of work.

Now I keep a chart of all my bills in an Excel spread sheet. When I pay a bill, I check the box. If a box is empty, that means I need to check the status of that bill. I'm trying not to count on anyone else to help me stay out of late fee/high interest hell. What system do you use?

It's a gas

Note to K.M. You write that an Atmos Energy technician turned off your gas before fixing a neighborhood leak. But he refused to relight your water heaters because he said one of them had a valve problem.

You don't want to pay a plumber to fix the problem, and you complained to the BBB. You ask, "Is there any other recourse?"

Yes. Hire a plumber. Don't mess with gas. If an Atmos tech tells you there's a problem, it's best to believe him or her. That's their job. That tech doesn't make money if a customer has to hire a plumber.

But the opposite goes for the tech from the air conditioning and heating company who comes to your house after you receive a $49 discount postcard from his company. If he says he turned off the gas because your heater is broken and then tries to sell you a new heating system, it's best to put on your skeptic's cap. Or better, don't invite companies into your home that offer $49 discount coupons or suspiciously low-priced service plans. When it comes to a/c techs, like doctors, get a second opinion.

A dubious top 10

Cities like to brag about making top 10 lists. They help in marketing and in building civic pride. But here's one list they shouldn't care to make: slowest large city in the state when it comes to providing Texans with open records about their government.

Tarrant County has two cities in the top 10: Fort Worth is ranked eighth. Arlington is sixth.

The list's real name is Cities with the Highest Per-Capita Requests to Texas Attorney General for Open Records Appeals. Compiled by the Center for Public Integrity, the list could be considered a ranking of open records stragglers who use the appeals process to delay and sometimes withhold information that members of the public are often entitled to see.

The Texas Public Information Act states that governments are granted certain exceptions in what they can release, but when there is doubt releasers should err on the side of releasing rather than withholding. The records belong to us, not to government officers, the law states.

Often enough, a city's appeal to the AG is a rebuff of that concept. Fort Worth did it 860 times last year, according to the survey published at PublicIntegrity.org.

The Star-Telegram previously reported that Fort Worth was tops among large cities in 2009 who sought AG appeals and delayed release of open records.

In the new survey covering 2011, Fort Worth remains the largest big city with the most per-capita appeals, followed by Dallas (9), El Paso (10), San Antonio (12), Houston (13) and Austin (14).

Here's my hope: new Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price is open-records friendly. I hope she pokes her head in the city attorney's office and urges staff to do less appealing and more releasing. Get out of this top ten.

Coming Sunday: A federal agency fixes a major problem in Tarrant County.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043

Twitter: @davelieber

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