Water bill change denied

Published 2:12 pm Saturday, April 4, 2015

GATESVILLE – Change can be good, but for customers of the Gates County Public Water System none are in store when it comes to the way they are billed and the accompanying timetable in which those customers pay for the service.

At their meeting earlier this month, the Gates County Board of Commissioners defeated a motion that would have changed the late payment cycle back to a two-month period rather than the current one-month method.

Commissioner Henry Jordan stressed that cutting off water after a first (late payment) notice was, “a bit stringent for Gates County.” He noted that Perquimans County had a cut-off policy dating 25 days out from the bill’s original due date.

“Cutting off water is something we do not need to take lightly,” Jordan said. “It involves people who may be elderly. One of the concerns this board had when we agreed to go from a two-month (delinquent) cycle to one month was to try to help catch up those in arrears. If you implement the policy and a customer is one month behind, they have to pay both months. That would have been the fix rather than going back to one month.”

Jordan suggested going back to two months, with a stipulation that a customer needs to catch-up their bill and not just pay the previously delinquent amount and still have an outstanding balance. He also cited the need to have some type of provisions in place to allow immediate payment from those whose water is about to be disconnected due to a past due bill.

Water Department Director Timmy Hedgepeth said the policy has been to require full payment (current and past due amounts) when a customer’s name appeared on the cut-off list.

“We’ve had several changes in this policy over the years,” Hedgepeth stated.

Jordan motioned to have the Customer Service Department to return to the two-month policy prior to water being disconnected and if a customer pays an outstanding bill, they would be required to do so in the full amount (current and past due).

Commissioner Ray Freeman offered a second.

Commission Vice Chairman Jack Owens asked Hedgepeth which method would cost the county less manpower and dollars.

“Prior to all the changes when it was bi-monthly cut-off, we had gotten those numbers down to roughly 140 per cut-off (two-month cycle),” Hedgepeth explained. “That number when we switched over (one-month cycle) spiked tremendously because it was new and nobody paid attention to it. That has come back down, but it still fluctuates between as low as 40 per month to as many as 160 for a month. There’s not a lot of difference between the methods, but to be honest with you, for every change you make it will lead to a spike in those numbers before the customers become more accustomed to that cycle.”

Hedgepeth added that the current method was now “flowing better” and stated he was scared that flow would be disrupted if there was yet another change.

He also stated that roughly 90 percent of those who are late in making water bill payments are repeat offenders.

“You see the same names over and over on the cut-off list,” he said. “Typically when you see a new name on the list, it’s because they simply forgot to pay the bill. When you contact them by phone or in person they are humbly apologetic.”

Hedgepeth suggested sticking with the current policy and, “feed everyone from the same spoon.”

“The point is that when you have citizens that have gotten their water cut-off and they report to the commissioners that they attempted to pay their bill and their check wasn’t accepted, we need to realize there are some citizens out there who need the extra time to catch up their bill,” Jordan stated. “We may have 90 percent repeat offenders, but there’s always a situation where someone needed that time. Going back to two months, it’s going to reduce personnel and should help the citizens of this county. We need to make accommodations to our citizens.”

Hedgepeth stated that policy does not allow the acceptance of a personal check for payment of a water account in arrears.

“If that had happened to me, then I hold myself responsible; I don’t expect for anyone to treat me any differently when it was my fault,” Hedgepeth said. “That’s the way we need to approach our customer service policy, to be fair to everyone and stick with the rules and regulations.

“We, the water department and the customer service department, are the ones who catch it the most as we are the faces that the citizens see on a daily basis. Folks don’t like change, but if it changes to their favor and you stick with that change, then it becomes the norm,” he added. “Over the past two and one-half years, nothing has remained stable enough over a period of time to become the new norm.”

Diane Hendrix of the county’s Customer Service Department said the one-month policy works the best.

In the vote on Jordan’s motion, it failed 4-1 with Jordan casting the lone favorable vote.

Prior to the discussion over possibly changing the cut-off cycle, Hendrix was on the agenda to discuss a Customer Service policy from last meeting.

“At last meeting question was asked if water department personnel going out for a (water meter) disconnect could wait while the customer could come in and pay the bill. Our current policy does not allow that. It’s not advised that we change that,” Hendrix said.

“The other statement was made was if our meter readers, when they were going off to cut off meters (due to non-payment at the end of the grace period), could they collect (payments). That was also not advisable,” she added.

Hendrix called February, “the month of the perfect storm.” She stated it marked the first month the county’s water department had fully used the lock box method of receiving water bill payments, and the financial institution receiving those payments (in Pennsylvania) was impacted by winter storms.

“That caused difficulty in the checks getting through to the lock box,” Hendrix explained. “Because of that we have had to credit the late fees assessed, realizing there would have been no late fees had the mail arrived on time.”

She noted that on one particular day in late February, 82 of the 87 payments received at the lock box would have made it on time had the mail not been impacted by the winter weather.

“We gave credits as warranted,” she said.

At one point there were 276 customers listed on the cut-off list, but due to extra initiative put forth by the department that number was sliced to 59. A lot of that effort, she said, was through placing courtesy calls to the customers, explaining to them the weather delay in the mail and if they had made a payment that no further action was necessary.

“That was a great effort,” she said. “I feel we give them ample time to pay their bill. We give them a due date and their name is not placed on the cut-off list until 10 days later. We’re not as stringent as other counties. As an example, Hertford County has a due date and the bill needs to be paid within five days. On the sixth day they cut off your water.”

Other than using the US Mail, Hendrix noted the several options Gates County water customers could use to pay their bill, to include using the drop box outside the courthouse, by phone, by computer, electronic payment through a customer’s bank, or in person.

She noted that the lock box payment method was handled by Southern Bank in Pennsylvania, not in Gates County.

“We have to explain that a lot to our customers,” Hendrix stated.

She also implored water customers to supply updated contact information (phone numbers) to the county.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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