Getting tough on utility bills
Water is essential to life, so it’s no wonder people are upset when a city crew shows up and shuts off their water. Gone is the convenience of taking a shower, flushing the toilet, hosing the garden, doing the laundry, filling the kettle from the kitchen faucet, making ice, washing the dishes and cleaning food – not to mention the simple sanitary task of washing one’s hands.
Naturally, there’s the option of bottled water and, if there’s a sympathetic neighbor, running a hose from next door.
So far, since a concerted effort to clear up a backlog of unpaid water and sewer bills totaling more than $6.2 million, the city has shut off the water to about 150 homes this year. It would seem like a drastic and last ditch measure that should be taken when all attempts for payment have failed. But that’s not the case.
A water shutoff is actually a step below a tax sale and a means of bringing a chronic habit of deferring payment to a head before the prolonged process of a tax sale and the potential loss of property.
The backlog of payments jumped to the headlines more than two years ago when the city advertised 2,500 properties for a tax sale. Such a large tax sale raised questions. Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur dug into the details, discovering that the city had allowed people to go two and three years before taking the drastic measure of putting their property up for a tax sale. There was not a process of sending out warnings and threatening shutoffs as the practice of utilities and there wasn’t a plan to deal with hardship cases.
Ladouceur formed a committee and a procedure came together for dealing with delinquencies going forward. Shutoffs, unquestionably, was the most controversial of the measures endorsed. The administration picked up on the recommendations and, while debatably they took too long to implement, they are here and working.
As of earlier this month when the city sent out letters to 1,200 property owners of a December 1 tax sale, utility delinquencies totaled $2.6 million. Of that amount, $1.6 million was earmarked for the tax sale. By the time Dec. 1 arrives, the balance will be substantially less.
Reversing the laissez faire, almost nonchalant practice of the past does not come easily to those who were accustomed to being told with partial payment and no rigid payment plan they would be okay. But let’s also recognize this was unfair to those who did pay their bills on time. They were footing the bill to keep the water flowing and maintaining sewer operations.
The bill needs to get paid and those provided the service need to pay them.