History Highlight: A crowded lobby led to payment substations

History Highlight: A crowded lobby led to payment substations
October 6, 2020

During the 1930s, the lobby of the old Third Street office became increasingly congested with consumers paying their water bills. The cause of the congestion was not a sudden increase of customers -- it was customers paying their bills more often. Louisville was well on its way to a becoming fully metered system.

Under the old flat-rate system, consumers paid their bills semi-annually. However, with metered service, consumers paid their bills monthly. The inconvenience of having to come to Louisville Water 12 times a year and then wait in a crowded lobby must have been maddening for both the consumers and the cashiers. 

The solution? Open substations throughout the service area.

In the midst of the Great Depression, Louisville Water made the switch to allow customers to pay bills at one of 43 local authorized substations. Customers were no longer required to come to the Third Street office.

Although this was a new policy for the company, this method of bill payment was not new to many customers. The model that Louisville Water used was the system Louisville Gas & Electric (LG&E) had put in place more than 20 years earlier.

LG&E’s plan put pay stations “at places convenient to our customers,” and beginning in 1935, Louisville Water customers could pay their bills at the same locations. “Hold up insurance” was provided to all those who handled the payments.

Seven years later, in a nod to promote the war effort, Louisville Water placed an advertisement listing 40 pay substations, encouraging customers to “save time – save gas and tires.”

Louisville Water’s customer newsletter, Facts Unfiltered, twice printed lists (in 1967 and 1973) of the authorized collection agencies. In both lists, the number of substations nearly doubled to 80. Pharmacies, including drug stores, made up more than half of the “convenient locations for water bill payment” in all three lists. Hardware stores were the second most common location. Department stores, grocery stores, and a couple of banks rounded out the rest of the lists. The recently closed Hauk Handy Store on Goss Avenue appeared as one of the substations in the last two lists.

These substations were not only a convenience for customers but also a way for the authorized businesses to attract potential customers. In 1951, a classified ad for an unidentified hardware store claims “one of the outstanding features of this hardware business … is that it houses a Water Company office which brings several thousand people into this store every month to pay their water bills.” Doing the math, that would be, on average, nearly 100 extra people every day for just that one location.  

At some point, these substations were discontinued because of several factors, including the competition that smaller, individually owned businesses faced from larger national chains and big box stores.

In addition, Louisville Water promoted automatic bill payments, with banks deducting water bills from checking accounts. However, the idea of paying bills offsite never really went away. In 1987, Louisville Water announced that payments could be made at all Citizens Fidelity Banks “at no cost to the customer” but this practice was recently discontinued.