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City lifts moratorium on utility disconnections; will continue to explore options for outstanding debt

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The Salisbury City Council on Tuesday rescinded its own moratorium on utility disconnections as the number of accounts with outstanding balances continues to rise.

In a presentation to council members, Salisbury Finance Director Shannon Moore said that as of July, a total 880 accounts, both residential and commercial, were considered delinquent. In July, 179 accounts were paid and became current, but 317 additional accounts became delinquent. That amounts to a current debt of more than $393,000.

Of the 880 accounts, only 78 payment plans have been established.

Executive Order 142, established by Gov. Roy Cooper, prevented municipalities from executing utility disconnections and charging late fees or penalties for nonpayment. That order expired on July 29, but requires municipalities to allow customers at least six months to pay off any outstanding balances accrued during the March-July time period.

Moore said the Local Government Commission suggests establishing repayment with specificity on terms and consequences if arrangements aren’t kept, sufficient alerts to customers that disconnections will start again at a specific date, encouragement of direct withdrawal payments and continual information provided regarding account balances.

Moore said the plan is to charge equal payments for customers, meaning the debt will be divided evenly by six.

She presented an example from the UNC School of Government’s legal team. If a customer was past due by $430.57, which is the current average of delinquent residential accounts in Salisbury, six monthly payments of $71.76 would be charged in addition to the prior month’s usage fees. The plan allows customers to choose the date that works best for them rather than the typical billing date.

Moore also presented the city of Concord’s plan for debt repayment. In Concord, customers who were delinquent before March 31 will have a two-week extension on paying their outstanding balances. Additionally, customers with past due balances after July 29 also get a two-week extension. No interest or penalty charges will occur until February 2021 billing, and normal cut-off will also take place in February for any accounts still past due.

Kannapolis, however, is allowing customers until the end of August to pay their balance in full or have a payment plan in place. Then, service can be interrupted at any time. It’s also setting up a payment plan for all amounts past due prior to the expiration of the executive order.

In Mooresville, customers must pay their current bill plus the deferred payment beginning in September to avoid disconnection.

City Manager Lane Bailey said rescinding the city’s order is important so that staff can continue to determine which action is best moving forward.

He suggested to council members a “Share the Water program,” which would provide the city with three options moving forward. The first option is rounding all customers’ payments up the next dollar to help with the delinquent debt, which is the most difficult and costly option since staff have identified at least eight software vendors that would be needed to keep track of payments, Moore said. Customers would have to opt-in to such a program.

The second option is a fixed amount, which allows for human error as it has to be manually managed in the billing system. That option would also require customers to opt-in with their own set amount to contribute toward the delinquent debt.

But staff prefer the third option, she said, which is establishing a donation campaign to help with repayments. It’s also the quickest, easiest and least costly to implement.

All three options are suggestions from the Orange Water And Sewer Authority in Carrboro, which stated the donation campaign was most successful for them.

Moore said the city staff has already met with Rowan Helping Ministries, the Salisbury-Rowan Community Action Agency, Rufty-Holmes Senior Center and United Way, who are all prepared to help with any customers unable to make delinquent payments. Contact with the Salvation Army and Main Street Mission is pending, she added.

The city staff’s recommendations include allowing all past due balances as of July 29 to be included in payment arrangements, as well as considering a 12-month repayment plans for larger delinquent amounts. Additionally, staff recommend setting a disconnection date of Sept. 1 for all accounts without a payment plan established.

The city is also recommending waiving all interest and late payment penalties on all accounts through January 2021.

A city appropriation/donation could be made from the city’s general fund, but state statutes say that assistance could only apply to senior citizens aged 60 or older with moderate-to-low income.

Citing concerns with the likely decrease in the amount of unemployment benefits from the federal government, council member David Post said he liked the 12-month option, but didn’t agree with establishing a payment plan by Sept. 1 as it’s already August. He also didn’t initially agree with rescinding the order until the federal government decided on the next potential stimulus package, but ultimately voted in favor with the rest of the council.

“I’d like to know what we’re facing,” Post said. “Because I’m one that happens to think that things might get a little worse economically around here rather than better.”

The plan is yet to be determined, but rescinding the order was the first step, Bailey said.

Also at the meeting:

• A public hearing was set for Sept. 1 for the voluntary annexation of Rowan Woodland Apartments.
• Council members approved an application for a 2020 Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) in the amount of $32,740.
• Council members adopted a budget ordinance amending the fiscal year 2020-21 budget to appropriate the Fund Balance in the amount of $200,000 for Dixonville Cemetery, as well as authorize the city manager to execute an agreement with Unit Paving Inc. in the amount of $257,289.24 for Phase II of the project. The second phase is an interpretive walk into the cemetery, terminating at the sculpture site, with an anticipated completion date of December 2020. Phase three will be a revitalization of the Lincoln School, according to Dixonville Task Force Chair Emily Perry. The $200,000 was allotted in the 2019-20 fiscal year budget, but wasn’t used. The request was to move those funds to the current fiscal year, which wasn’t initially included in Bailey’s 2020-21 budget proposal.
A right-of-way use permit was approved for the use of sidewalk along North Main Street for work being performed at the Plaza Building through Nov. 3, which also grants staff the ability to establish conditions as the project progresses.
• Council members approved the encroachment of three gas lights in the right-of-way adjacent to 226 South Jackson Street in accordance with Sections 22-18 and 22-19 of the City Code.
• The council endorsed the Human Relations Office as a sub-recipient of CARES Act Community Development Block Grant funding in the amount of $4,000 to purchase back-to-school materials and supplies for distribution at the Community Resource Fair.
• Council members approved UBS Financial Services to serve as an investment broker for the city and authorize Finance Director Shannon Moore and Finance Manager Wade Furches to initiate investment activity on behalf of the city.
• Mayor’s comments included the annual Community Action Teams Community Resource Fair, which will be held Aug. 15 from 9:30 a.m. to noon at the Civic Center located at 315 South Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. To remain in compliance with COVID-19 precautions, families will drive through the parking lot to collect school supplies and other items from participating agencies. Walk-ups will also be welcome. For more information please contact Human Relations Manager Anne Little at 7040638-5218 or anne.little@salisburync.gov.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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