With the full financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic still to be seen, the City of Stillwater can’t afford to continue allowing past due utility accounts to grow. On Monday, city staff presented the members of the Stillwater City Council with options for helping utility customers catch up on their past due balances as the municipal water, electric, waste water and solid waste management services resume charging late fees and disconnecting services.
Residents are being strongly advised to call the City of Stillwater’s customer service line to set up payment plans that will prevent them from losing service as long as the customer honors the agreement.
The City Council placed a moratorium on late fees and disconnections on March 23 as businesses were ordered to close to slow the spread of COVID-19 and residents found themselves suddenly without jobs.
The bills were extended, not forgiven, and customers were urged at that time to continue paying whatever they could to keep the balances from growing too large. Not many customers have done so, Utility and Billing Services Director Dana Mattox told the councilors.
Of the 1,250 accounts that are past due and subject to disconnect, 983 are residential, she explained. Several of the accounts have not paid anything since January or February.
Mattox said some customers have accrued balances that may be hard to pay down but the overall percentage of past due accounts isn’t that much higher than before the public health crisis.
That number sits at a little under 10% of total accounts, City Manager Norman McNickle said. The balances total about $300,000.
The city is also losing an estimated $86,000 a month in fees that would have normally been collected on past due and disconnected accounts.
Mattox told the council that many customers seem to wait until they see the red cut-off notice before they pay their bills.
“A lot of customers honestly don’t pay attention before they get that red notice in the mail,” she said. “That’s kind of their reminder … since we weren’t mailing that notice, people just haven’t really thought about it a lot.”
The city utilities will begin mailing disconnect notices Tuesday and shut-offs will resume on June 2. Late fees and penalties will be charged again beginning July 6.
Utility customers have until July 17 to sign extension agreements and get on a payment plan.
The councilors expressed concerns about people having enough notice and asked if an extra notification could be delivered to all account holders.
McNickle said he just sent a letter of intent to apply for federal CARES funding to assist with financial recovery from the effects of the pandemic.
He requested $300,000 for utility assistance with additional funding for rent assistance and mental health. It’s not guaranteed and the specific requirements haven’t been announced, but it could provide some help for people who are having difficulty getting caught up.
But first, it’s important to reach out and see what can be done.
“If they’re behind, they need to call us,” he said.