Utility billing policy change proposed

Published 12:11 pm Tuesday, October 17, 2017

AHOSKIE – The town of Ahoskie may be working its way through its fiscal issues, but one solution to the deficit may soon be altered.

Currently, town residents who are delinquent with their water bill payment have a $20 late fee added on to their monthly balance and must also pay $65 for non-payment.

At the Oct. 10 meeting of the Town Council, Town Manager Kerry McDuffie essentially told those late customers that he feels your pain, but the service fees have to be met.

McDuffie and his staff introduced a proposal that will alter the criteria for those water bill payments and Council approved it, but by a split vote.

“For the charge of $20 we have an average of about 120 people per month,” McDuffie explained. “That’s $3,600 a month, or about $43,000 annually we collect from that fee.

He said for the $65 fee, there are about 30-35 people who pay that amount each month; and he continued that surcharge encourages people to get the bill paid to avoid the heftier fee.

“It’s more a late fee than a turn-off fee,” McDuffie informed. “The $65 is about what it costs to go out and cut the meter off and cut it back on. As for the $20, we can’t give up $43,000 in revenue without making it up somewhere.”

He said staff looked into increasing the fee on either of the two amounts and consolidating the increase into one fee.

“These people aren’t choosing to be late,” McDuffie said. “They’re problems going on in their lives, there’re difficulties they’re having; and, sometimes there’s a lack of knowing how to handle money, to lay out a budget. The more organized folks are, the less I think this will happen.”

The Town Manager said there are about 15 people who end up paying the $65 almost every month; and about 50 that are cut off every three or four months.

“It’s the same people almost always,” he commented. “And it’s really sad.”

McDuffie said there’s no demographic for the delinquent fees: there are young people as well as seniors.

“What we propose over the next three months or so,” he continued, “is to waive the fee if they agree to take a financial class, we might be able to get folks to understand a little bit more about money. If they attend the class, we waive the fee.”

McDuffie said the class would be paid for by the town; and, if effective, would reduce the workload on public works personnel.

The Town Manager said he’s observed customers and how they interact with collections staffers and it pains him. But he also said the incentive is keeping the water running at residents’ households.

“If we can make a positive difference in some family’s life, then I think it’s worth it,” he surmised.

The second part of the recommendation would be having a specific time and a specific date for cut-offs, and he proposed the 21st of each month at 11 a.m.

“After that is when our staff would hand Public Works the cut-off list, and if folks know exactly when it will happen, then they will more likely be on time,” he maintained.

According to the proposal, there would be no cut-offs on Friday should the 21st fall on a weekend, nor any cut-offs on the last business work-day before a holiday – at which time, naturally, the collections office would be closed.

Councilman Charles Freeman inquired what the penalty would be for not showing up for the finance class and McDuffie said in such cases, the fee would be re-instated.

However, he said it would be a nine-week course, one-hour class; and those who sign-up must attend a majority of the classes.

“Instead of doing one hour a week, they can do two, one-hour sessions and reduce it down to four-and-a-half weeks, but we don’t want to add on too much at one time,” he noted.

“We don’t want to throw so much to them that it loses the impact.”

Councilwoman Linda Blackburn argued during discussion for seniors.

“They’re not trying not to pay their bill,” she implored. “They take it seriously. Rather than judging it, let’s offer them a chance.”

Councilman Charles Reynolds was skeptical about the policy and proposed a six-month trial period and then re-evaluate its effectiveness.

McDuffie said the class would start in January, and further proposed a waiver for the final two months of 2017, through the first of the year – but any current bills must first be paid.

“We’re not doing away with the bill,” he said, “we’re just doing away with the penalty.”

Councilman C. David Stackhouse then made a motion to accept the Town Manager and staff’s recommendation, seconded by Blackburn. On the roll call for the vote, it passed 4-1, with Reynolds the lone objection.

Later, during public comments, Rev. Daniel Smith, asked for clarity on how the town could charge the two water collection fees, and was told by Mayor Jimmie Rowe that the $65 fee is not charged until after a customer’s water had been turned off.

“We put the second late fee on at the time we send the list out to be cut off,” explained McDuffie. “We would now put the fee on once we hand the list to the guys (in Public Works) that actually physically cut the water off.”

The Town Manager said he wanted to eliminate “drama” of drawing emotion out of collections.

“We don’t pay those ladies at the collection counter to get yelled at, and cussed at, the way they do,” he said. “Once you watch that happen, it doesn’t make sense not to do it this way. I believe once everybody is aware of this, the more clear we are with the ‘when’ and the ‘how’, then that’s going to help everybody.”

McDuffie said notices will be placed in Ahoskie customers’ November water bills to increase awareness and reduce the ambiguity. For attending the classes beginning in 2018, the fees – not the bill – would be waived for October, November, and December.