A day of reckoning is looming for delinquent water-sewer customers in Mount Airy due to the expiration last Wednesday of an executive mandate prohibiting cutoffs of service.
But the good news is, steps are in place to help those affected, a city official says — including a special relief fund set up through the local Salvation Army, and the availability of a payment plan.
Under Executive Order 124 issued by Gov. Roy Cooper in response to COVID-19 — effective March 31 — local governments that operate utilities were prohibited from disconnecting service to residences or charging late fees to people who haven’t paid their bills.
This was aimed at assisting citizens who might have lost their jobs or were otherwise impacted by the pandemic economically, while also accommodating the need to maintain running water in households to aid handwashing and prevent the coronavirus spread.
Another order was issued by the governor on May 30 extending that moratorium by 60 more days, but the clock has now run out due to the ban on service interruptions ending Wednesday.
In mid-July, about 400 water customers in Mount Airy were determined to be on the cutoff list, according to city Finance Officer Pam Stone, whose department handles water-sewer utility billing. Customers receive one monthly bill for both services.
The number could be even higher now.
“We will not run another listing until mid-August,” Stone advised.
The cutoff list has steadily grown in recent months, somewhat mirroring the pandemic itself, rising from 170 accounts in February to 298 in April, when previous balances not paid totaled nearly $71,000, to about 400 in the July count.
Payment plan, utility fund
Even with Executive Order 124, and the follow-up Order 142, not being extended past Wednesday, Mount Airy water users with delinquent accounts still have a little more time to get caught up, Stone mentioned.
“We are going to give customers with past-due balances until Sept 1 to set up a payment plan,” the city finance director explained.
“If they do not set up a payment plan they will be disconnected in September,” she added.
To arrange a plan, customers are directed to contact Sherri Abbott at City Hall at 336-786-3512.
Stone also mentioned the availability of the city Utility Donation Fund, established during a recession in 2008 to assist those in need through donations by other customers. The fund was expanded by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners earlier this year, at Stone’s urging, to help customers better deal with COVID-19 financial repercussions.
Under a procedure announced at that time, customers can contact the Mount Airy Salvation Army office at 336-786-4075 to determine if they qualify for a one-time payment of their bills from the Utility Donation Fund, up to $100.
“This fund is only available to residential customers,” Stone emphasized.
It contains $24,000.
The plight of water users who are behind in payments has been a concern of city officials during recent meetings.
Commissioner Jon Cawley said on one occasion that it might be easy for them to start paying water bills again, but questioned their ability to satisfy the past-due sums given the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 on the local economy.
“These people aren’t going to be able to go back and make (that) up,” Cawley feared, with Stone responding that it is hoped the payment plan will adequately address such cases.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.