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Repayment plan accepted

WINTON – Hertford County Rural Water customers who took the opportunity to postpone their monthly bills due to financial hardship caused by COVID-19 are now being asked to settle up their past due accounts.

At their regularly scheduled meeting here Monday morning, the Hertford County Board of Commissioners – convening as the Board of the Hertford County Northern & Southern Rural Water District – voted unanimously to a payment plan as devised by Stanley Lassiter, the county’s Public Works Manager.

Lassiter initially reminded the board of North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s two Executive Orders back in March that placed a moratorium on disconnecting public water meters of residential customers during a period covering March 31 through July 29.

‘Some of our customers have not paid balances over that timeframe or have paid partial balances,” Lassiter told the board. “We realize the financial hardships they faced due to COVID-19. To that end, the executive orders require that these customers must be given the opportunity to pay their balance, the amount in arrears, using a reasonable payment arrangement that spreads out repayment over at least six months.”

Lassiter added that the Hertford County Rural Water Department has opted to utilize a payment option that is based on equal, fixed monthly installments. He stressed there will be no fees or penalties applied to the repayment plan for any funds owed during the period of March 31 through July 29.

Lassiter said there are a total of 146 residential water customers (102 in the county’s Southern Water District and 44 in the Northern District) who chose to postpone their payments during the March-July timeframe. Combined, those customers owe $35,153.20.

“To ensure this repayment plan proposal has been effectively and clearly communicated per the [Governor’s Executive Orders], we have communicated in three separate mediums,” Lassiter said. “Initially, we have notified customers via our official [county] website and Facebook page that a payment plan is available and to call our phone line at 252-358-7820 to make an appointment to meet with a utility payment specialist for repayment plan set up. We have also communicated this repayment option as a written notification on each monthly invoice, advising a payment plan is available for those in need of that option for the outlined time period. We will continue to notify our customer base in these avenues until further notice.”

Lassiter further explained that for those customers whose accounts are in arrears, if they do not contact the county’s Rural Water Department for enrollment in the repayment plan, it has been advised by the UNC School of Government to treat all customers that have been delinquent from March 31 through July 29 as if they are automatically opted into the program. This would mean that if a person that has an accrued balance during that timeframe and has not reached out to the county for a repayment option, his department would be able to disconnect for non-payment.

“When that occurs, we would advise the customer of the repayment plan terms,” Lassiter stated. “By law, we are not permitted to request all funds owed in a bulk manner.”

He added that in regards to disconnections, per the guidance, his department must give at least 10 calendar days notice of disconnection before service disruption can occur.

Lassiter did seek guidance the board’s legal counsel – Murfreesboro attorney Charles “Chuck” Revelle III – in regards to disconnection fees for current or past due amounts.

“I would suggest to allow a customer to pay their current balance first if they are set up on a payment plan for their past due balance,” Revelle said. “You can’t charge penalties, service charges, or disconnect fees on those past due balances. As long as they are meeting their repayment plan, let them pay their current bill first. That way they can avoid a disconnect fee.”

Prior to the vote, board member Leroy Douglas asked Lassiter if his department was notifying the customers who need to establish repayment plans of the NC HOPE initiative. That program – another of Cooper’s Executive Orders – assists homeowners and renters impacted by COVID-19 in paying their rent and utility bills.

Board Chairman Ronald Gatling suggested to Lassiter that his department make the county’s rural water customers aware of that program.

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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