Time for shutoffs
For the first time, the city started shutting off water service to customers for the non-payment of water and sewer bills. It’s about time, too.
As of the end of March, a staggering $3.9 million was due the city in unpaid sewer assessments, sewer usage fees and water bills. According to City Tax Collector Kyla Jones, some of these bills went back for 12 years. In addition, all of these delinquents, she said, had been notified that they faced the potential of losing water service if they didn’t make payment or come up with a payment plan.
That warning produced results. During April, payments streamed in, nearly halving the outstanding balance. Then the city got tough and the threats of shutoffs became real. Shutoffs had a “soft” rollout with 40 services targeted for the first day.
It wasn’t the end of the world.
The mayor’s office received a single call, while people showed up at the Tax Collectors to pay outstanding balances plus a $100 fee to have their service restored.
Some might view the action as excessively harsh, putting people in the position of having to come up with considerable sums (one customer interviewed for today’s story had to write out a $4,000 check) or go without water until they could make things right.
Actually, and we agree with Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur, who brought the high level of delinquencies to the forefront, that this is far less onerous than the previous practice. To collect on utilities, the city used to treat the amount due as it does for unpaid taxes. The property was listed for a tax sale. That meant the prospect, if the property was sold, of a lien and possibly its loss. Reversing a sale once a property has been listed also carries a fee of about $200 for land record research.
Shutoffs can be made quickly and can be easily reversed once a payment is made.
As Ladouceur recognized, the adage of “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” applies to city collections. If you don’t remind people of what they owe and threaten them with the loss of service if they don’t pay, some will simply put it off. The obvious flaw is that there is the potential of falling so far behind that they can’t make the payment.
Tax Collector Jones was on target when she said the city utility bill should be no different than the cable, telephone, electric or gas bill. If you don’t pay, you face the loss of service.
Now that the city is following through with shutoffs, the key is not to let people fall too far behind. Contrary to fears over political backlash, we think people understand and appreciate knowing where they stand.
It beats not having any water, or far worse, losing one’s property to a tax sale.