By Tom Joyce
August 2, 2013
While approving recommended changes to Mount Airy’s water and sewer rate schedules Thursday afternoon in a 4-0 vote, the city commissioners did soften one proposal involving users who are renters.
After weighing the idea of eliminating altogether a plan to force new water customers who rent to pay a $125 deposit before receiving service, the commissioners cut that by more than half, to $60.
“I think $125 is too much,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said.
However, renters still must pay a total of $100 when hooking up, based on Thursday’s discussion. In questioning Pam Stone, city accounting manager, board members learned that even before the $125 deposit idea emerged, renters were required to pay a $25 connection fee and a $15 application fee.
With the proposed $125 deposit, that would have meant forking over a total of $165 before receiving the first drop of water.
After further discussion, the commissioners, opted for a flat $100 charge — including the $60 deposit decided on and the connection and application fees. The change applies only to new customers, with existing renters “grandfathered in,” officials said.
Utility department personnel proposed the $125 deposit in response to a substantial portion of the bad debt in the department being laid at the doorsteps of renters.
There are problems with some who move out owing money for water usage and non-payment fees, which the municipality can’t collect. This is amounts to about $13,000 per year, which Stone said results even after much time and effort to collect the charges. Though not offsetting bad debt altogether, the $125 deposit was designed to reduce some of the load.
But Commissioner Yokeley expressed concern for renters, especially those who enter into long-term lease agreements whom he said merit a distinction from short-term renters.
Yokeley also pointed out that people who rent a residence also might face paying their first month’s rent and deposits for the home and telephone, electrical and other services. If they have oil heat and it’s in the middle of winter, “they have to pay several hundred dollars just for oil,” he added.
Even though she can’t vote on issues unless a tie occurs among the commissioners, Mayor Deborah Cochran said Thursday she preferred no deposit at all for renters.
“We are in a prolonged recession and I would favor keeping what we have,” Cochran said of the present policy. She cited a contact with one local couple who advised her that the deposit requirement would prevent them from signing up for water service.
The eventual decision by the commissioners reflected a desire to not be too hard on renters while also recognizing that some type of deposit was needed to address the relative few who don’t pay and cause problems for others.
Commissioner Jon Cawley said one possible solution would be for property owners to keep water service in their names, which would be maintained as renters come and go.
City Manager Barbara Jones mentioned that she knows of only one apartment complex in town in which the water meter is in the owner’s name and tenants pay for the service through their rent charges.
The change goes into effect on Aug. 29.
Aiding Other Customers
A second part of the city action Thursday, also to begin on Aug. 29, is aimed at providing more payment leeway to customers.
It will consolidate an existing 5 percent late-payment charge (with a $1 minimum) and a $25 non-payment fee into a single 5 percent ($25 minimum) late-payment fee. The time before that charge is applied also will be extended to 25 days after the bill date.
Under the present policy, water bills become due 10 days after the billing date. A late-payment fee is applied to unpaid accounts 19 days after that, and a non-payment fee 23 days after the bill date, with those accounts scheduled for disconnection the next business day.
In addition to combining the late-payment and non-payment fees for one 5 percent charge that will kick in 25 days after billing, unpaid accounts will be slated for disconnection 40 days after the bill date with the changes approved.
Affected customers also will receive another monthly bill that reflects a balance forward before being disconnected for non-payment, to serve as a reminder.
Examples were cited Thursday in which vacation schedules or illnesses have caused customers to have their service interrupted.
Commissioner Cawley told of one user who recently decided to hand-deliver the monthly payment, rather than pay online as usual, because the water bill also included a survey on recycling. That caused a slight delay which led to the customer’s water being cut off, Cawley said.
The city manager said such instances prompted the staff to discuss ways to improve the situation.
In other action Thursday, the commissioners voted 3-1 to prohibit unattended donation containers in Mount Airy.
This targets off-premises clothing and other collections by for-profit entities, but won’t affect those of charitable organizations such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army.
“To be honest with you, I haven’t really seen any (in Mount Airy),” said Andy Goodall, a member of the city planning staff, who drew up the new regulations on unattended receptacles. “Where I live in Kannapolis, they are everywhere.”
That being the case, Commissioner Cawley asked why this matter was even before the city board, with Goodall replying that the new rules are a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to a potential problem here.
“If they’re kept clean, that’s one thing,” the planner added. “But a lot of them are not that way.”
Goodall also said a “moral” issue is involved in which clothing or household goods supposedly solicited for the needy instead are resold overseas by profit-minded entities.
Under the amendments to city zoning regulations approved Thursday, unattended containers may be located only in business and industrial districts. They will be prohibited unless placed at the operational site of a company or organization that collects used clothing or household materials for resale or donation as a primary business function.
“So you wouldn’t have the Walmart parking lot be piled up with these,” Goodall had said before a public hearing last month during which no one opposed the zoning changes.
Cawley was the only commissioner voting against the new regulations.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.