Council moves to temporarily halt water service disconnections, starts reconnections

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 18, 2020

By Liz Moomey

SALISBURY — The city council on Tuesday approved an ordinance to temporarily suspend Salisbury-Rowan Utilities service disconnections and reconnect recently disconnected customers, joining other North Carolina municipalities in responding to the coronavirus outbreak.

The vote was unanimous, and the ordinance remains in effect until the council says otherwise.

Beginning today, the city will contact residential utility customers that have been disconnected for nonpayment within the past 30 days and reconnect at their request, according to the ordinance. Finance Director Shannon Moore said city staff is prepared to make calls to 36 residents for non-payments.

City Manager Lane Bailey said reconnections will have a limited financial impact on the city. When Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins, who requested to discuss the contents of Tuesday’s ordinance asked whether a tenant can make the reconnection request or whether the property owner needs to, Bailey said the city would work with individual situations. 

“We’re in a different time right now. We’re going to work to deal with these issues.”

Bailey said the city does not want to create a situation where residents will receive a significant bill in three to four months because of nonpayment and no service disconnections. The city will work with social agencies to help customers, Bailey said. He said those who can should donate to the Rowan County United Way, Rowan Helping Ministries or churches who help with bill payments.

Councilman Brian Miller said approval of the ordinance was the right thing to do but asked that Bailey includes comments about the decision’s financial impact so the council isn’t “caught by surprise.”

Council members also spoke about other aspects of the city’s response to a nationwide coronavirus outbreak. The council stripped the majority of its agenda Tuesday, only having a public comment period and approving a budget amendment for City Park Lake so that work can continue in this fiscal year. The city council chambers had 20 seats that were all six feet apart in compliance with social distancing. 

Heggins praised Hotwire, which runs the city-owned fiber-optic network and announced it would offer free internet service for two months for new customers, based on network availability.

“To support the Salisbury community during the COVID 19 crisis, Hotwire Communications has committed to the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected pledge which, in part, provides free internet service to students and low income families who do not have internet and are impacted by the shutdown,” Hotwire said in a prepared statement.

Council members also directed City Attorney Graham Corriher to look at the legality of virtual meetings during the outbreak. 

The council also agreed city board and commission meetings should be suspended, unless they are necessary.

Miller said he encourages members of the community to check in with each other.

“This is a time we can find what neighbors and communities are all about,” Miller said. “This is the time that we’ll prove who we are as a community.”

For some, Miller said, isolation is going to be as much of a danger as coronavirus. Other council members echoed Miller’s comments.

“Be kind and remember all our citizens that are vulnerable,” Alexander said.

Councilman David Post told the city staff and fellow council members not to get complacent in case COVID-19 goes dormant and returns in the fall.

“Whatever systems we put in place right now, we may be facing again in six or seven months,” Post said. “I surely hope not.”

Precautions being taken by the city include:

• The city encourages residents to conduct business online, by mail or by phone.

• Some city staff will work remotely.

• Public Works has increased its cleaning operations.

• Salisbury Transit is disinfecting buses more regularly.

• Salisbury Parks and Recreation has closed all indoor facilities and programs are on hold. Staff is on standby to provide child care for essential city staff if needed.

• The Salisbury Customer Service Center will limit face-to-face transactions. Customers should pay by phone, online, by mail, by drive through or a drop box.