By Logan Roddy, senior contributor
The city council has approved resuming gas and water utility disconnects starting Nov. 1 for those who stopped paying their bills, but the city is offering payment arrangements for those with long overdue utility payments over a nine month period.
If payment arrangements are not met within those nine months, the city will return to its standard practice: charging late fees on collected balances during the repayment period, while customers can continue to apply for late fee waivers accumulated during the state of emergency period (March 2020 to August 2021).
“We have a significant amount of accounts that have failed to make a payment since March of 2020, so those same number of accounts has not changed a whole lot, and we also have some who have made very diligent efforts towards that as well,” said Sherri Sherman, manager of utilities services.
At the time Gov. Ralph Northam, issued a moratorium in March 2020 to halt any disconnects in the wake of the pandemic, Harrisonburg had 1,600 utility accounts more than 30 days overdue — totaling more than $145,000. As of March 2021 there were 1,632 utility accounts more than 30 days overdue, but the total had ballooned to more than $677,000. That amounted to a 365.8% increase.
Sherman told the council Tuesday that in addition to efforts before the pandemic to reach out to customers with overdue bills, the city has increased services to allow people to apply for Utility Relief Funding in person, over the phone and electronically. The city also has issued public service announcements and reached out through social media to communicate to residents about resources for helping them with utility bills.
The city received $92,766.47 in utility relief funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, which Sherman said had been distributed to individuals as of Aug. 31. After outreach efforts by city public utilities and the Harrisonburg Fire Department in collaboration with the Harrisonburg Electric Commission, the city received 209 relief applications, of which the “funds were sufficient to all qualifying applications.”
Sherman said that they made more than 1,600 calls to those with overdue accounts of at least 60 days, and another 2,000 to those with accounts 30 days past due, “just trying to get the word out, thinking that is a possibility that they move from that 30-day mark to that 60-day mark very quickly throughout the pandemic.”
The city entered into 164 payment arrangements out of those 1,600 calls, of which 52 complied and 112 failed to pay, she said.
Failure to comply with the payment arrangements over the nine month period will result in a return to the public utilities standard practice of disconnection. Customer service representatives for the utilities will notify all customers who are more than 60 days past due prior before the disconnection and will offer them payment arrangements instead of requiring a full payment of the total owed.
Sherman said the utilities department has made extra efforts and done all it could do to assist residents with the funding they had available at that time. The department also refunded nearly $8,000 in late fees since the start of the pandemic.
Council member Chris Jones said he commended the public utilities department on being especially responsive to customers during the pandemic.
“I’m sure that’s the case all the time for all departments when it comes to customer service, but it’s always nice when you see it happen,” Jones said.
Vice Mayor Sal Romero said that he had his water cut off recently due to an accident near his house around 2 a.m. “and the water was back up by 7 am.”
“So our staff was out there probably in the middle of the night,” Romero said. “But we were without water for literally an hour” for which he was awake.
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