LAURINBURG — After 35 years of doing battle with irate customers behind on their electric bills and recalcitrant computer programs, this week Linda Blackmon Terry is hanging up her sword and shield on the altar of civil service.
A native of Wagram, Terry started with the city of Laurinburg’s utility billing department in 1981, after working as a sales clerk at Belk and obtaining an associate’s degree in business.
In those days, the city charged $3 a month for garbage collection.
“The figures and everything have changed: the price of electricity, water, sewer, and garbage,” said Terry. “When I first started, we had to do handwritten receipts when customers paid their bills.”
Each day ended with each clerk counting the cash and checks tended as payment for everything from electricity to pet registration and zoning permits. Now credit and debit cards have all but replaced hard money, but customer service is still a soft skill the department can’t do without.
“We’ve got the faithful few who come in on the first of the month and pay their bill on time, then we have the same faithful few who don’t pay until the due date, then we have the people who don’t pay until it’s time to cut off,” Terry said.
“I’m nice to all of them. Some of them are nice, but you’re still going to have the ones who are going to cuss you out and talk junk to you because you’re doing your job. Sometimes they make me upset but I don’t talk negative to them. I try to let them know that this is my job and this is what I have to do.”
With Terry’s retirement at the end of 2015, the close-knit department will lose its administrative assistant and its mother hen.
“We all get along well; we’re like family,” said Terry’s co-worker of 11 years, Barbara Haywood. “Linda’s like our mother. She really is a caring person.”
“The people here, we had a relationship here that was like family,” Terry said. “I consider this my second home. Even though we had to work and we had our ups and downs, this was like a family to me.”
Though frequently armed with cold, hard numbers, the soft-spoken Terry took the title “public servant” to heart in approaching her tasks as a city employee and let the Golden Rule be her guide.
“Every customer that you deal with might not like the rules and regulations that we have here, but that’s what the rules are,” she said. “I try to be friendly because we’re here to work for the customers. We’re here to serve you because you pay your light and water bill … we’re here to make you happy. I want to treat you like I want to be treated.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.