The Marion City Council wants to hear from the public about possible changes in its disconnect/reconnect policy.
The major change, if approved, would mean no additional extensions beyond what the ordinance states would be granted and the council would not extend the payment time.
The decision to amend the policy was prompted by the council’s decision at its Nov. 28 meeting to give a resident more time to pay his utility bill, thereby overriding the policy.
City Administrator Doug Kjellin said the city staff, who enforces the rules, had their knees cut out from under them by the council’s action in that situation.
“In the actual ordinance,” Kjellin said, “it stipulates a utility hearing board comprised of the utilities superintendent, utility billing clerk and an additional member of the community appointed by the superintendent.”
Kjellin explained to the council they have two choices: to re-establish the utility hearing board or repeal those portions of the ordinance that address an appeal process.
“Either action should remove the responsibility, for final decision-making on utility procedures, from the city council,” he said.
The current policy states that everyone in the city gets a utility bill the first of each month and payment is due by the 15th. If someone misses the due date, a reminder advises the bill must be paid in full before the disconnect day, which is seven days later.
Becky Makovec, the utility billing clerk, said at any point in the month, when bills go out until the day before the disconnect date, a customer can sign a payment agreement.
The ordinance, she said, reads that customers failing to pay their bill or sign an agreement will be disconnected.
When the council members agreed to reconnect one resident’s electricity, it meant they ignored the policy by allowing him more time to pay and failing to sign an agreement.
“I do think we need to give an opportunity for the public to come forward (on this policy),”said Councilor Steve Smith.
Kjellin said he got the impression from the council at its last meeting that they would prefer not to be involved in an appeal process.
To prevent the council from being the final say, he said, an amended extension policy could be considered.
The amendment states that customers with a delinquent account can request an extension on a designated agreement form and at least three working days prior to the scheduled disconnect.
Extensions may be granted to the third day of the following month. If a customer requests an extension and fails to make the arrangements as agreed upon, no additional extensions will be granted during the 12-month period following the date of the failed agreement.
Mayor Mary Olson told the council that she had talked with Kjellin about this and it seemed like the hearing board had not been used very much.
“In talking to Doug there are a few other areas we might talk about before we vote or approve the ordinance,” Olson added.
Although Kjellin offered to schedule a work session, but Smith said he thought the discussion was done.
“I thought that we all pretty much decided that we would follow the letter of the policy,” he said.
“If we don’t want to have the appeals process coming in front of the council, then (residents) shouldn’t be able to go in front of an appeals board as well,” he added.
Smith said he believes there should be strict adherence to the policy.
Councilor Jerry Kline questioned one of Smith’s remarks.
“Are you saying (residents) shouldn’t come before the council? We might get burnt somehow on that,” he said.
Olson countered saying the council cannot keep anyone from coming before them.
“They can still come to open forum,” Smith said. “It’s just that the council shouldn’t be making that decision.
“I firmly believe we are put in a position where we don’t know how the accounts are paid, who pays on time, who pays late, and we are making opinions and judgements on what is presented to us at the time.”
Smith added that he thinks the council would like to believe they can help one person along the road, but he did feel like when there is a policy in place they cannot afford to step on that either.
Kjellin said no action was needed, and he planned to bring the issue back at the Jan. 9 regular meeting.
“Let’s have a first reading at next meeting,” Olson said, “and vote on (the amendments) at the second meeting in January.”
City Clerk Angela Lange said there is one thing the staff is wanting to do regarding the extension form.
“We consistently see the same accounts every month,” Lange said, “so we are tossing around the idea of making that form so that we can fill out a new line every month instead of issuing a new page and then they would have to sign a new line saying the amount they agreed on.”
The reason for the form change would be in saving paper. Lange also said Makovec has a thick book filled with customers who have three or four different utility accounts.
“Sometimes (customers) are standing and waiting on us to look all that information up,” Lange said. “It will be a lot easier for us to pull up their account number, put the information on there and have them sign it saving time and paper.”