Water bills prompt discussion

Published 10:16 am Monday, July 18, 2016

GATESVILLE – The Gates County Board of Commissioners will hold a workshop on July 18 to further discuss water billing issues brought to their attention.

This decision comes on the heels of the individual board members being approached by county citizens voicing complaints concerning the limited time they have between the time they receive their monthly water bill and the bill’s due date.

During the public comment portion of the commissioners most recent meeting (held July 6), Earl Rountree of Sunbury addressed this same topic.

“I represent a number of people over the water billing issue,” Rountree said. “I fully understand the importance of collecting the water bills. Just like in business, the county needs strict regulations in collecting water bills.

“But we need to think about applying the golden rule,” he added. “Think of yourself, what do you do, as an honest citizen that pays your bills on time, and all of a sudden someone shows up at your house on a Friday afternoon and turns your water off and you have no water until the next week, all because you forgot, not neglected, to pay your water bill.”

Rountree continued by saying, “Water is the most important thing we have. We count on our county to supply us that water. There are right ways to do things and wrong ways to do things. When one has a problem, we all have a problem. We need to address this problem.”

Rountree suggested giving the water customers an extended period of time to pay their monthly bill before the service is disconnected by the county. Additionally, he urged the commissioners to consider increasing the reconnect fee from $25 to $50

“I believe the county is losing money with that $25 fee; it costs more than that in material and manpower to place a lock on a water meter,” Rountree said.

Diane Hendrix of the county’s Customer Service Department (that mails and receives the water bills) updated the commissioners on the number for water cut-offs for June. Of the approximate 4,500 water customers in the county, she said 2,200 were assessed late fees in June. The late fees were assessed on June 16. The water cut-off list was printed on June 27 and impacted 66 customers.

Hendrix said the Customer Service Office uses robo calls and social media to remind water customers of their due dates and potential cut-off dates.

“Also, we do not do disconnects on Fridays; that’s our policy,” Hendrix said. “The water department performs disconnects in the mornings, Monday through Thursday, and uses the afternoon hours on those days for reconnects. We also have staff that stays late for a couple of hours on disconnect days.”

For 2016, Hendrix provided the commissioners with a month-by-month listing of water customer disconnects: January (93); February (67); March (67); April (70); and May (58).

She told the commissioners that “99.9 percent” of the customers whose water is cut-off are the same accounts month after month.

Commissioner Henry Jordan suggested moving the due date for all water bills by five days to allow the county’s citizens more time to pay. Currently, the water bills are mailed on the first of the month and are due on the 16th day of the month.

“Our policy is a bit unreasonable,” Jordan said. “We need to be more citizen friendly. Our policy does not allow much turn-around time. If it takes two to three days for mailing time, and then a customer may not pay it until they get their paycheck on Friday – meaning another five days has passed – and then they pay it and mail it back in, there’s another two to three days, that means they’re delinquent.”

Jordan suggested moving the due date to the 20th of each month and assess late fees on that day as well if the bill is not paid. He also suggested that a second billing notice needs to be mailed out.

“Also, the cut-off would be the last day of the month,” Jordan noted. “That gives our citizens more reasonable time to respond.”

Jordan planted yet another idea in regards to water bills. He suggested that a provision be added to the county’s policy regarding water customers who are placed on the disconnect list.

“If a customer is scheduled for (water service) disconnection due to non-payment, they will removed from that list provided their payment history for the previous 12 months is in good standing,” Jordan said.

He wanted to better define a customer in “good standing.”

“I feel good standing in regards to a water service prospective, there should be no outstanding late fees or previous disconnects (on that account),” Jordan stressed.

“In reviewing this, I certainly like us being more citizen friendly,” said Commissioner Ray Felton. “I’m wondering if we need a work session to discuss this.”

“A work session would be well in order,” remarked Commissioner Billy Felton. “I would support doubling the reconnect fee to give our customers an incentive to pay.”

In regards to sending out a second (billing) notice, Felton asked Hendrix what was the costs incurred now by the county to mail the water bills. She responded by saying that the postage on the bills mailed on the first of each month comes at a price of $1,800. She estimated a second notice would be $900.

Given that the county is already placing robo calls and using social media to remind water customers to pay their bills, Commission Chair Linda Hofler said she felt a second notice by mail was redundant.

“Ms. Hendrix informed us earlier that it’s the same accounts each month that are cut-off,” Hofler said. “Plus, if we mail out a second notice on the 20th and the disconnect date is at the end of the month, that still does not give the customers a lot of time to react, based on what I heard earlier about the number of days it takes to receive and send mail.

“I do agree, however, that we need to sit down and look at all the logistics involved and hold a workshop to discuss this in more detail,” Hofler added.

Freeman motioned for a workshop to be held at 6 p.m. on Monday, July 18 (one hour prior to the scheduled commissioners meeting). That motion was approved without objection.

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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