City will change policy on utility nonpayment
Baldwin City utility rates, most notably for electricity, are high. What happens when residents don't pay those high bills was a topic of discussion during a rare Tuesday evening meeting of the Baldwin City Council.
City Administrator Jeff Dingman had sent a memo to council members regarding changes he was wanting to implement regarding payment plans. The council had a few concerns with the changes and wanted to know how bad the nonpayment situation is.
"To give you an idea of the numbers involved, we typically have around 200 customers - that's right, out of about 1,600 customers overall - we've carried on pay agreements," Dingman said Wednesday while clarifying Tuesday's discussion. "Amounts owed range from under $10 to more than $3,000. The total value of outstanding bills we were carrying on pay agreements toward the end of November was more than $50,000.
"That is a significant amount and it affects each of our utilities," he said. "I've made the decision that we need to get a better handle on these collections, including a more streamlined way of accounting for them and knowing at a glance what the amount owed is."
In the past, the city hasn't had a system for handling nonpayment. That will change.
"We have previously operated without a written policy, with Laura Huggins, utility billing clerk, taking a lot of the responsibility of setting up and tracking the pay agreements," said Dingman. "She will continue to work with people to find help from various agencies that offer utility billing help.
"The written policy gives us something to distribute when the questions are asked and specific guidelines to follow when setting up pay agreements," he said. "I think it is a fair way to handle it. As we pointed out at the meeting Tuesday, many cities have abolished pay plans altogether."
The city clerk checked with other cities and found that most didn't do payment plans and those that did required 50 percent payment of what was owed before a plan was implemented. That was one concern the council had.
"Are we sticking with 50 percent payment at the time?" asked Council President Amy Cleavinger. "Could we try 25 percent instead of 50 percent?"
The council also discussed turning off utilities and how that is handled. The clerk said the other cities she checked with that had payment plans said there were few utility unhooks.
Mayor Gary Walbridge shared a story from a natural gas employee. He said that when he went to disconnect people because of nonpayment, the people came out and paid the bills - in cash.
"They've got the money, they're just taking advantage of the utility," said Walbridge.
"I have a lot of compassion for young people with young kids and the elderly who have trouble paying their bills," said Council Member Ken Wagner. "For those who are able to pay and don't, my compassion is lower."
Cleavinger also brought up the need for a level pay plan so people aren't hit with the peaks and valleys of utility charges.
"I would push for a level pay plan, sooner rather than later, to have that option," she said.
Dingman said he would look into establishing such a plan.
Among the stipulations for the new extended payment plan effective Jan. 1 are:
1. The city may provide extended payment plans to utility customers experiencing hardship and requesting that accommodations for extend payments be made. Late fees will be assessed as regularly provided and included in the amount due under any extended payment plan.
2. No extended payment plan will be authorized without the applicant paying at least 50 percent of the amount due at the time of the request.
3. No extended payment plan will be authorized without the applicant agreeing to a specific payment schedule and signing a summary of the schedule indicating a promise to pay the amount owed according to the schedule.
4. No extended payment plan will be authorized for any applicant who has previously entered into an extended payment plan with the city for the payment of utility bills and subsequently failed to meet the obligations of the payment schedule and promise to pay. Such applicant will be eligible for extended pay accommodation only after a 12-month period of no payment delinquencies.
5. Only one extended payment plan may be in effect for any account at any one time. Any previous extended payment plans must be satisfied in full before another extended payment plan may be entered.
6. Only three extended payment plans per calendar year shall be allowed for any utility account.