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Water service shut-offs rise

 

July 25, 2018



The City of Sweet Home is shutting off more water services to delinquent customers each month than it did last year.

During 2017, the city generally shut off between 20 and 46 water services for delinquent bills, according to city records. The exceptions were April with 78 and July with 85.

So far in 2018, the city has shut off 52 to 106 water services for nonpayment of water bills. The highest number of shutoffs was in January. In July, the city shut off 72 services, and April had 63 shutoffs. Those are the only two months so far where the number of shutoffs in 2017 exceeded those in 2018.

The city altered its water policies in January, requiring bills to be paid in full. Previously, the city allowed water customers to carry an $80 balance forward from month to month.

The average past-due amount under the old policy ran about $150. Under the new policy, the total amount due runs about $240 to $250 – the city doesn’t allow $80 to be carried forward and residents experienced a sewer rate increase in January.

Under the old policy, customers could accrue about three months worth of bills, while under the new policy, they accrue about two months.

Bills are calculated and mailed around the 26th and 27th of the month. Bills are due on the 15th of the next month. Past-due notices are sent around the 17th and 18th. The next meter reading, for the second month, is read between the 18th and 21st, with the next bill going out around the 26th.

The city shuts off water services between the 8th and 14th of the following month, the third.

Under the old policy that shutoff only occurred when a past-due balance was more than $80.

Ten days after shutoff, the city terminates the account, said Cindi Robeck, accounting supervisor. Closing the account prevents it from accruing additional bills for the utility’s base charge, which is billed regardless of how much water is used.

The city charges $32 per shutoff, $16 for the shutoff and $16 to turn water on; and past-due bills are charged a $2 late fee and 1.5 percent interest. The interest continues to accrue after an account is terminated. The customer deposit is kept by the city to reduce the total amount owed.

Most of the bills are paid quickly, Robeck said, before an account is terminated, and the water is turned back on. Of the 72 shut off in July, five accounts were terminated. Of those, three no longer live in Sweet Home, and one resident told city officials he or she was just letting the city shut it off. One of the five was someone who was out of state, forgot about the bill and had not requested putting the account into vacation status.

“They are trending higher because of the new policy, I think,” said Finance Director Brandon Neish. “This year, we just attribute it to the policy change.”

The policy allows customers to build up a smaller balance before it must be paid.

Robeck said the policy helps landlords, who are held liable for their tenants’ unpaid water bills.

“I was expecting a push back,” Robeck said, but she only heard a couple of complaints.

The most common comments city officials hear about unpaid bills are something like, “I was out of town and didn’t know it, or pay day is three days away, on Friday,” Neish said. Those living paycheck to paycheck may sometimes have difficulty as well.

The policy’s effect on customers doesn’t really change much. In practice, it allowed customers to stall payment by one month. The next month, customers still needed to pay a full month’s water bill, while carrying a balance forward.

“You’re still going to pay it but have more interest and late fees,” Robeck said.

Water services aren’t generally shut off two months in a row.

In January, the city shut off service to four residents who had been shut off in the previous two months. In February, it shut off one that had been shut off in the previous month, but in March, it shut off 18 that had been shut off the previous month. The number fell to eight in April, rose to 13 in May and fell to four in June. The statistic was unavailable for July.

During 2017, the number of repeated shutoffs was three to 11 per month.

Compared to the past 12 months, the total number of services that were shut off increased substantially, with five to 45 having been shut off during the previous 12-month period.

In 2018, the number has ranged from 17 to 36 as of June.

 
 

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