Sulphur Springs City Council determined Tuesday night that customers who are behind on city utility bills due to COVID-19 will have up to 24 months to pay off the amount owed on their bills without fear their water service will be turned off.
As of Tuesday morning, April 6, a total of $157,384 in past due amounts is owed by city utility customers. Of the 503 accounts behind by 30 days or more, 29 are 12 months or more past due. City staff asked the City Council to consider approving a resolution establishing a payment plan for utility customers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the city manager indicated in previous months’ reports would likely be recommended to the council, City Finance Director Lesa Smith proposed having those who are behind due to COVID-19 pay the current month’s pill plus 1/12th of the past due amount each month. That should allow the customer to get caught up in one year and avoid disconnection of water service. She said letters could potentially go out today to those utility customers who are behind due to COVID-19 to make them aware that the city will begin requiring them to start paying the amount.
As an incentive, Smith recommended having customers who come in and sign an agreement with the city establishing a plan to pay off the balance within the approved time frame would not face any additional financial penalties for the amount they are behind on and as long as the customer makes the payment as stipulated in the agreement on time each month. She recommended penalties for arrears be added and resuming service disconnects starting with May utility bills for those who do not visit the city to sign an agreement with a structured payment plan.
Place 2 Councilman Harold Nash asked if there was a plan in place for those who may not financially be able to come in and pay that amount. He said he is aware of some who can not.
Smith said the resolution as proposed does not include anything that would address that situation.
“I feel like what we are doing to the folks on this that have already been struggling is we’re making them now pay two payments in one month if we do it at just 1/12th the amount,” Place 5 Councilman Gary Spraggins said. “I would like to propose that we let them do it in 24 months. They would pay their current bill pay and also 1/24th of their balance. “I talked to Lesa this afternoon about it and she said of the people involved, about 10 percent of them went the whole 12 months, go back on the whole 12 months of it. So we’re figuring affecting quite a few of the people so I would like for us to make it 1/24th that they that they pay on their arrears and their current payment. I believe that might help them out on that. I agree. That’s going to be tough. They need to pay this, to do both. I believe this is something that could handle instead of making two payments at one time.”
“That’s a nice compromise,” City Manager Marc Maxwell noted.
Place 4 Councilman Freddie Taylor asked if the plan means that the letters would go out April 7 with the agreement going into affect with the percent of past due and current amount of city utility bills due with the May payment, or if it would be on the May bill with payment due starting in June. Smith noted that the customers who have arrears would have one month to come in, make a payment plan and pay the first payment amount agreed upon.
“So you want to give them two months to set up a payment plan?” Smith asked.
Taylor indicated a desire to send the paperwork to give them time to come in and be able to make that first payment.
Place 3 Councilman Oscar Aguilar also indicated a preference to give customers a little bit longer than the original 1 month proposed to come in, sign up and work on funding to make the payment.
The city manager noted that some will receive the first letter, discard it without reading or paying attention to it, then have their water shut off before they pay attention and decide to visit the city to make a payment agreement. The resolution, he noted needs to be structured in a way that it still allows them to come in and set up an agreement., perhaps with a warning if one is not made initially.
Sellers noted the some customers have had over a year of accumulated arrears without fear their water would be shut off due to the suspension of fees and serve being cut off for those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Spraggins, of the 236 accounts that are behind, 10 percent, or about 29 accounts have been behind for 12 months or more during the pandemic.
Spraggins made the motion to accept a resolution establishing a payment plan, allowing up to 24 months for utility customers who are behind on their bills due to COVID-19 to pay 1/24th of the owed amount plus the current bill each month if they wish. Letters would be mailed on Tuesday by the city, notifying those utility customers who owe back amounts that the grace period due to COVID-19 is being lifted, that they must visit the city offices to sign an agreement in order to avoid penalties and having their city water service disconnected. Cutoffs, Spraggins proposed, would not begin until water bills are issued for June.
That means, beginning June 10, 2021, the City of Sulphur Springs will resume disconnections and penalties for accounts that are past due. To avoid disconnection and penalties on balances accumulated through May 31, 2021, the account holder must go to the city’s Business Office, located at 125 South Davis St., where they will then complete and sign a payment agreement before June 7, 2021. While the payment plan can be for up to 24 months, the payment amount will be determined by the customer provided the account is caught up at the conclusion the 2 years. Utility customers should also be aware that only the person identified on the city account as the account holder will be able to discuss issues regarding an account and enter into a payment agreement. If a payment plan has not been established before June 7, 2021, the account will be subject to penalties and/or disconnection, and be required to pay the entire balance in full along with the $30 reconnection fee in order to restore service.
The City Council unanimously approved the resolution as proposed by Spraggins.