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Water bill dilemma handled

GATESVILLE – After hearing the backlash from their water customers regarding late-arriving bills that led to unexpected service fees, the Gates County Board of Commissioners approved several measures here last week to make things right.

“We’ve had a lot of comments from the public on this; a lot of emails and phone calls,” said Commission Chair Dr. Althea Riddick. “We need resolve the issue with the water bills for our citizens who have been adversely affected by this.”

Opening the floor for discussion, Commissioner Jonathan Jones offered a solution.

“There were a lot of issues in December with [U.S. Postal Service] mail being lost, not received, and long delays,” Jones stated. “People are still having delays.

“My opinion is that we refund all [water account] service fees for December,” Jones continued. “And to take this a step further, we don’t charge any service fees or late fees for January.”

Commissioner Linda Hofler said she agreed with the plan put forth by Jones, but suggested instead of refunding December’s service fees, credit that amount to the customer’s account.

“Yes, that’s what I meant…to take it off the books and credit the account instead of writing all those refund checks,” Jones remarked.

Jones said that was “part one” of his solution. Part two, he said, would be to return the water billing to the county. It’s currently handled by an outside vendor.

“Our late colleague, Commissioner Henry Jordan, always spoke of cross-training our employees,” Jones recalled. “There was a new finance department position that the LGC [Local Government Commission] recommended to us in 2019 that we did not hire then due to funding at that time. I think we can fix our water bill issues and our finance issues by bringing the bills back local, where a citizen mails them to Gatesville rather than to Pennsylvania, and hire that person for our finance department to serve in a dual role with 50 percent in customer service [billing] and 50 percent in the finance office.”

Riddick said the issues with water billing had been on her mind as well.

“I’m not disparaging the water department staff by saying this, but I feel we need a comprehensive review of that department to include policies, practices, procedures, and the outsourcing of services, to include billing, and come back with a proposal that may include locating the funding to hire a position that may help out with customer service,” she suggested.

“We need to have that review completed in the next 30 days because we are about to begin building our new budget [for FY 2021-22],” Riddick continued. “If we’re going to do anything different with personnel or spending taxpayers money for a new position, we need to have the information from the review to put in our budget proposal.”

However, for the present, Riddick said the most pressing matter is to handle the current problem that was a result of water customers not receiving their monthly bills on time through the mail.

Referencing the issue as a “Postal Service problem” and “no fault of our own,” Jones made a motion to credit the $40 service fee charged on water accounts in December back to the customer’s account, and not to charge late fees or service fees assessed on delinquent water accounts in January.

“We’re still in COVID times and we’re not regulated by the State Utilities Commission, so I think it would be a good gesture on our part to not have any [water] disconnects [for delinquent accounts] in January and February,” Jones said, adding to his motion.

In recognizing the motion, Riddick said it’s a good practice to always pay your water bill on time when possible.

Commissioner Ray Freeman offered a second and the 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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