Cities approach late utility payments in different ways

In a down economy, most people in Marion County are able to cut back on the things they want, but for some even meeting the most basic of needs, like paying a utility bill, can be challenging.

This was the situation at the Marion City Council meeting Nov. 28 when one man requested the council turn his electricity back on after he failed to fill out the proper paperwork to stop the disconnect.

Prompted by the issue that arose last week regarding the utility bill, officials in Hillsboro and Marion spoke about the specific ordinance addressing payments.

Marion

Becky Makovec, utility billing clerk, said Friday that bills in the city of Marion are sent out the first of each month and the payment is due on the 15th.

?Everybody has the same due date,? she said.?If someone misses the due date, they will receive a second mailer letting them know everything must be paid in full.?

?Everything,? she said, includes the electric, water, sewer and trash. If payment is not received seven days from that day, the customer?s service is disconnected.

 

?At any point in the month, when bills go out, and up to the day before the disconnect date,? she said, ?a utility customer can do a payment agreement.?

Once the disconnect day arrives, though, the ordinance states no payment agreement can be completed.

Should residents fail to pay their bill or sign an agreement, they are disconnected, she said, and it costs $50 to reconnect.

A public issue?

City Administrator Doug Kjellin said in April 2011, he and Makovec were seeing an increase in late or non-payments on utility bills.

Along with the increase, customers were wanting the city administrator to make exceptions to the policy, he said.

Because the ordinance was clear on what the administration could or could not do regarding utility bills for non-payment, Kjellin said he thought the matter should be handled as a collective decision by the council.

Less than a handful of residents have appeared before the council asking for leniency and the council has addressed each situation differently.

In the most recent request by to have his electricity turned back on, a citizen stated the reason he was unable to complete the payment agreement in time was because he was helping his parents move into a nursing home.

?I beg of you,? he said to council members. He said the weather was cold was cold, and he had never missed a payment arrangement before.

?If we make an exception on one, we make exceptions all the way down the line,? said Councilor Steve Smith, ?but I really hate to see it come to this in such extreme cold situations.?

Not wanting to put someone into the cold, Smith said he was willing to make concessions.

Councilor Bill Holdeman asked if the man had gas or electric heat, adding that even with gas the customer would still use electricity for the thermostat.

Mayor Mary Olson asked the man if he could come up with $100 (the amount of his electric bill) by tomorrow.

Pulling out dollar bills from his pocket, the man told Olson he had $29 for food.

?He simply cannot be without heat in this kind of weather,? Holdeman said.

After more than 20 minutes of discussing the man?s bill of $282.63, the council unanimously approved restoring his electricity only, leaving the water, trash and sewer off-line until Dec. 5, the date the utility customer said he could pay the entire bill.

Kjellin said the city averages about seven disconnects each month, but of those four to five homes are usually turned back on before the day is over.

Only one or two customers will sit in a house with no utilities at all the next day.

Hillsboro

The policy in Hillsboro, although similar to some aspects of Marion?s policy, does differ in disconnect costs and payment agreement.

Mona Hein, utility clerk in Hillsboro, said customers are billed the first of the month and the utility bill is due and payable by the 15th, unless the 15th falls on the weekend and then the bill is due Monday.

?If the bill is not paid by the 15th (or the Monday following a weekend),? she said, ?a 10 percent late fee apples.?

For those customers who are not delinquent for two years, she said they can have one late penalty abated.

Those who don?t pay their bill on time receive a delinquent letter either on the 16th or 17th, she said.

?They have 10 days to pay the bill or be cutoff,? she said.

Last month, the cutoff date was Dec. 1, Hein said, but that was because of the Thanksgiving holiday.

If for some reason utility customers cannot pay their bill before the due date, they can make arrangements to pay the bill with a payment agreement.

The city of Hillsboro grants two payment agreements each year, but depending on the circumstances, one or two more could be given.

?We are glad to work with someone,? she said.

With the high electricity bills during the summer, Hein said, she saw more payment agreements, which allowed the customer to pay off the bill in a month to six weeks.

?They still needed to stay current with their new bill,? she added. ?It?s done on a case- by-case basis.?

When customers do fail to pay their bill and have not talked with anyone about other payment arrangements, Hein explained that the city will only cut off electricity.

The city will not cut water, sewer or trash, she said, because of sanitation reasons.

Is there help elsewhere?

Both Hillsboro and Marion officials said they will do whatever they can to help someone struggling by directing them to agencies or charities that can offer assistance.

In Hillsboro, Hein said, she will refer people to the Ministerial Alliance, which can give up to $100 per year for this purpose.

Another option is the Salvation Army in McPherson.

?(Salvation Army) offers help to a certain point until they run out of money,? she said.

One other possible source is Families and Communities Together, Hein said, which is an organization that also pays some of the utility bill.

Kjellin said Makovec also provides information to those needing assistance.

Some agencies he mentioned also included the Ministerial Alliance and the Low Income Energy Assistance Program.

Cold weather rule

The cities of Marion or Hillsboro don?t have to follow the cold weather rule outlined by the Kansas Commission Corp,, which requires utilities under its jurisdiction offer special payment plans from Nov. 1 through March 31 to help ensure that families have heat and gas during the coldest months of the year.

Atmos Energy serves gas customers in Marion County and, according to Jim Bartling, public affairs manager in Olathe, they are required by statute to adhere to the cold weather rule.

?A customer has 28 days from the date of the bill, or almost a month to pay,? he said.

After that, Bartling said the company sends out a 10-day notice giving the customer that time to pay before disconnecting service.

Yet before that happens, he said Atmos does everything it can to not shut anyone off, regardless of the time of year.

In addition, he said the company will go above and beyond in offering extension payment plans.

With so many people out of work, Bartling said his company wants to be good stewards by explaining to customers what options are available to help them with their bill.

?We actually work with the Salvation Army?s Share the Warmth and put money into that program,? he said.

?We work with customers,? he said, ?and if they need more time, we encourage them to talk to us about it.?

Regardless of whether the bill is paid through the city or to a private corporation, the common thread discussed by everyone is for customers to communicate their financial problems.

?It is the key to keeping warm this winter,? he said.

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