Water billing issues addressed

Published 6:41 pm Friday, August 5, 2022

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GATESVILLE – Just like a bad cold that refuses to go away, the Gates County Board of Commissioners are again faced with billing complaints from customers of the county’s public water system.

The latest round of problems appears to be associated with $60 “service fees” assessed to water customers for apparently missing the deadline to pay their bill. According to County Manager Tim Wilson, he had administratively ordered the suspension of those fees on May 12. However, they were still showing up on some bills during the May and June billing cycle.

Wilson said he and the commissioners had fielded numerous phone calls going back to May 12 concerning the service fee on water accounts.

“They didn’t understand them,” Wilson said.

He looked at the county’s Customer Service Policy, saying he found examples of such fees.

“It’s my belief that if you are going to charge a citizen a fee – whether it’s for an application or a penalty – there should be a clear basis for that. The citizen should understand why the fee is being accessed,” Wilson noted.

At that point, Wilson said he gave instruction there will not be any more service fees issued until the issue is resolved.

However, in the monthly report, Wilson said he saw where the service fees (364 in total during May and June for over $21,000) will still being assessed.

“In all fairness, those customers should be refunded their $60 service fee due to the fact it had been publically stated that those fees were not to be accessed [until the matter is resolved]” Wilson continued.

He said Diane Hendrix, the Director of the Customer Service Department, admitted to mistakenly continuing the process of assessing the service fee. Wilson added that Hendrix had provided a listing of the accounts that were assessed that fee during the May and June billing cycles.

Wilson said if the board was to approve the refunds that they be made as a credit to the accounts of the affected customers.

He added that the policy document does need to be looked at.

“There are some things that need to be better defined,” Wilson noted. “There should be an application fee, a security deposit of a moderate amount to help out if a customer skips out without making their final payment. That prevents having staff spending time trying to track these people down in an effort to collect.”

He said that works both ways due to the fact that when a water/wastewater customer has a credit on their account when it is closed, then the county can forward that money to them.

Answering a question from Commissioner Jack Owens, Wilson said a public hearing would need to be scheduled if the board adopts a policy that adds an application fee / security deposit to water/wastewater accounts.

Commissioner Jonathan Craddock asked what is lacking as far as the verbiage in the policy?

“It is lacking [description] of what is a service fee or a reconnection fee,” Wilson replied. “It needs a definition [of those terms). If it’s a penalty, then it needs to be identified as a penalty. The state statutes are very clear on what are service fees and what are penalties. We should be following the statutes and make the definition clear of fees within the county’s schedule of fees. The fees need to be commensurate of our costs.”

Commissioner Linda Hofler stated that the policy is “very confusing as currently written.”

“I do not like the term service fee,” she stressed. “You need to know what you’re being charged for. We’ve been kicking this ball around for two years, we need to get it settled and move on.”

“If we need to suspend all service fees until we figure this out, then let’s do so and stop confusing the public,” said Craddock, who put his thoughts into a motion.

Before a second could be made, board chair Dr. Althea Riddick interjected that the first order of business needs to address the crediting of the $60 back to the accounts of those impacted by the fees improperly accessed during May and June.

Craddock made that motion, seconded by Commissioner Ray Freeman. It was approved without objection.

Craddock then motioned to suspend all service fees as they relate to the water department until a new policy is in place.

Riddick reminded her board colleagues that a new or revised water department policy needs to be in place before Sept. 30 in order to meet the deadline for a $15 million grant application to the state that, if awarded, will assist the county in making repairs/upgrades to its aging 40-year-old public water system.

“We qualify for 15 million in grants, but I hope it doesn’t cost that much to repair what’s wrong with our water system. But whatever amount we do apply for will take us making some policy changes to our billing and collection methods,” Riddick said.

“Depending on what it is we may change, some of that may require holding a public hearing,” Riddick added. “That will slow things down. Then we might have to come back in here and talk about things again. We’re at a crossroads of fixing our water and wastewater issues here in Gates County. We need to focus on submitting that application. We’ve got 12 weeks (as of July 20) to get everything in writing into that application.”

Craddock then amended his motion, calling for the suspension of any fees that can be viewed as a penalty. Freeman offered a second and the motioned was approved by a 5-0 vote.

Owens said he was hopeful that revisions/upgrades to the water/wastewater policy can be made in an expeditious manner in an effort to have everything in place for the grant application deadline.

Riddick added that the policy, among other things, needs to address issues of cash flow and revenue recovery within the water department. She said state officials pointed to those as critical issues that need attention.

“We are missing $200,000 in collections,” Riddick remarked. “And now we’re tacking on another $21,000. We’ve got to stop the bleeding.”

Later in the meeting, Riddick expressed the need to have a capital outlay plan to include as part of the grant application.

“The grantor wishes to know how we plan to financially sustain these improvements to our water/wastewater infrastructure three to five years down the road,” she said.

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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