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Editorial: City must continue planning for eventual utility cutoffs

The city of Salisbury is right to seek ways to help with utility bills, but it must also ensure future plans include the reality that cutoffs cannot be suspended forever.

The Salisbury City Council on Tuesday heard from staff that a deficit of more than $300,000 has built up from the city and state officials preventing customers from being cut off from utility services for nonpayment. That total represents outstanding balances from more about 853 residential and 15 non-residential accounts.

While suspending cut offs was the right call after a rapid spike in layoffs because of the governor’s stay-at-home order, it cannot and should not be that way forever. The city needs people to pay in order to operate its service. Balances that continue to build can quickly become problematic once customers are asked to pay.

Mostly, the state gets priority in deciding when to require payment. The current statewide order banning cutoffs expires on July 29.

In the interim, there are some steps that city officials and local nonprofits might be able to do.

First, because there’s confusion about whether utility bills are an OK use for COVID-19 relief funding allocated by county government, the city should push for clarity and create a small pot of money for residential customers who are in dire need and cannot receive help elsewhere. Other towns that receive service from Salisbury-Rowan Utilities should consider doing the same for those in dire need.

Helping residential customers with utility bills is relevant to the cause of COVID-19 relief. It’s a public health hazard to be cut off from water and electricity service.

If there are any agencies who provide assistance with utility bills and suspended help because cutoffs weren’t happening, now may be the time to resume those services. A bill that’s currently unpaid will only be larger when cutoffs resume. Importantly, the Rowan County United Way still has money in its the COVID-19 Relief Fund for which local nonprofits can apply.

If there’s no extension of the statewide order, city government gets to decide what happens next for Salisbury-Rowan Utilities customers. And that will be a tough call. Will the city prioritize bill collection or preventing additional financial distress? Will it suspend cutoffs for residential and non-residential customers?

Whatever the future brings, the city of Salisbury must begin to think about when shutoffs are appropriate. Without an extension of the state order, it may be beneficial to set specific benchmarks for a return to business as usual.

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