Cracking down on payments
The City of Washington is about to get tougher on late utility bills. The council discussed utility bills at a work session Wednesday and agreed to end the “special arrangements” that give residents extra time to pay their overdue bills.
Utility clerk Deb Wagler said the city routinely has 400 customers a month who incur a penalty for late payment. City Administrator Brent Hinson said that number has stayed fairly constant over the past few years, but the dollar figure on the outstanding bills has risen sharply in the past year.
Hinson said the city is owed about $6,000 per month in unpaid water bills. He said the debt on the outstanding bills has risen because the bills themselves have risen. To pay for the new wastewater treatment plant, the city raised water and sewer rates in July 2011, which doubled the utility bills of some residents.
Hinson said one of the things the city will do to recoup that money is to end special arrangements to accept late payments. He said that 25 percent of lay payments come from tenants. Although that is not an especially high percentage of the total, he said that tenants are harder to track down for late payments because they tend to be more transient.
The city charges for water and sewer starting on the 20th of each month. For instance, if a person moved into a residence on March 20, he would receive a bill on May 1 for his usage from March 20 to April 20. The bill would be due on May 15. If he had not paid by May 25, he would have received a shutoff notice. The city would not actually shut off the water to the residence until June 25.
Hinson said the city should change this policy since it allows a person to live in a residence for three months without paying the city any money.
“When you look at the dollar amounts, it really does rack up a significant bill in three months,” he said.
Hinson said a common practice of the city is to accept an arrangement with the holder of the unpaid bill to pay the bill at a later date. The council debated this issue Wednesday and agreed it has to stop.
What the city will implement in the near future is a rule stating that customers must be paid up in full every two months. In the earlier example, this would mean that both the bills for April and May would have to be paid before the June 25 shutoff date.
Hinson said he does not expect the number of shutoffs to increase under the proposed policy, but rather that the city will be paid earlier than it is now.
The city can put a lien on the property that has unpaid utility bills. If the person lives in an apartment, Hinson said the city makes an effort to find the person so he pays the charges. If the person cannot be found, the responsibility for paying the bill falls on the landlord.