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Is autopay a punishment or a benign paperless future?

Is autopay a punishment or a benign paperless future?
  (David Gould / Getty Images)

One day a week or so ago I woke to the frantic blinking of the bedside clock. No matter how many times I switched on the coffee pot or pantry light, there was no electricity. My phone was charged so I went on the neighborhood website to see if power was out in the entire canyon again. It wasn’t.

Ah! All those envelopes with the return address from Glendale W&P.

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My brother did not think it was funny. He was surprised I wasn’t ashamed to have neglected my utility bills. I tried to be ashamed, but actually, I was angry. I’d been paying whatever cockamamie amount Glendale Water & Power requested for decades, on time and without complaint. And this is how they thank me?

The outstanding debt was for $566.27, which seems an awful lot for two little months of watering and electrifying a modest home and a drought-tolerant garden. I think the 27 cents was meant to imply precision. No rounding up or down here!

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Glendale Water & Power now has access to my bank account and it can take whatever it feels entitled to.


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The bill clarifies next to nothing for me about how I racked up so many kilowatt hours and acre-feet. It’s as baffling as the royalty statements I receive from book publishers, which is most of my income. These statements claim to itemize the exact number of hardcovers, paperbacks, audio books, e-books, translations, book club and deep-discount copies of my work sold anywhere on Earth. My take is calculated, minus 15% for my agent, and questions are futile. I suspect asking would only annoy the calculators, and who knows how that would manifest on my next statement?

How much water and electricity does it require to run the garbage disposal long enough to eat up a lemon peel? A nickel? A fraction of a cent? And how much electricity does my husband spend by leaving lights on in rooms he has no intention of reentering any time soon? Do those 27 cents represent a toasted bagel? If there's a meter ticking as I type this, do ALL CAPS require more energy? Actually, the meter out back was recently replaced by a “smart” one, meaning it’s none of my business and there’s nothing to see there.

The poor soul at Glendale Water & Power whose job is to answer calls from shady characters like me explained that it would cost $25 to turn my power back on, plus $850, which she referred to as a “deposit,” not a “punishment.”

When I squawked, she made this offer: The deposit could be waived if I signed on for automatic payment for a year, allowing them to seize the money from my bank account without any effort on my part. Responsible parties would handle things. If I wanted to, I could keep tabs online as one self-less force (my bank) communicated with another (the utilities), efficiently having their way with my money.

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Other entities have made the same suggestion, repeatedly. Even charities have kindly offered to automatically deduct contributions.

I've resisted, just as I’ve ignored my publishers’ requests to take my royalty statements “paperless.” (They cite their concern for trees, which is funny, if you think about it.) I guess they’d conjure up some arbitrary, approximate or accurate amount to deposit into my bank account, and then Glendale Water & Power would take an equally indecipherable quantity out. How kind of one and all to spare me the effort and concern of my own living expenses.

Long ago, I traveled through Europe. Before the euro, each nation’s currency was pretty and varied and math-related. I remember holding out a handful of coins for merchants to pick out the right amount. That too took faith but not as much as going paperless.

Not that checks sent through the mail don’t require trust in invisible forces, but at least there is a moment when my money and I and my creditors “touch.” Once the auto-magic deposit and payment begin, there will be no more pretending I'm involved or necessary. And one thing I know for sure, having tried to discontinue services after my parents died, you have to be dead a long time before they stop robotically taking your money. Dead and insistent.

Even when my honest, ethical, beloved children need money, I have them bring me my purse rather than help themselves. But really, what choice did that $850 charge leave me? Glendale Water & Power now has access to my bank account and it can take whatever it feels entitled to.

I had a moment, during that night’s insomnia, when I considered putting it all — the phone, the credit cards, the car insurance and the newspaper — on auto-magic. I could even make a standing grocery order to be delivered weekly. Then I’d crawl back to bed to let my life live itself without me.

Amy Koss is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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