FINANCE DIRECTOR Jessica Green has been working to reconcile past due accounts that have escalated over the past year and are now being prepared to be certified with the county. (Submitted Photo)

Utilities delinquencies going wild

Subhead: 
Staff Writer
Bill Morgan

 

Leniency towards past due utility accounts is set to change next spring when the City of Big Lake tightens their belt on residents who have been lax on paying.
Since the recession, the city has exhibited charitable consideration for homeowners who have struggled paying their water and sewer bills, but the city says that’s about to change since they can’t continue to operate efficiently with fees escalating to farcical sums.
This year’s past due utility charges reached a high a month ago of around $340,000, but has since seen a reduction to around $297,000 this past week.
Those that are unable (or unwilling) to pay their fees will have the charges certified to their property taxes for the 2014 year. The average size of the utility bills is $430 and most of the charges have been in arears about three months.
Nine hundred letters were sent out to non-paying water users this month, advising them to pay up or have the charges go to their mortgage bill. Of the 900, 30 or so are homeowners who have been assessed charges for snowplowing and/or grass cutting performed by city employees as opposed to strictly water fees.
The city recognizes the   non-payments of utilities is out of control and plans to institute a more strict policy that includes a more stringent warning with the notice of the discontinuance of water services. Currently, the city has allowed for delinquency to occur for four months before apprising residents of the pending certification.
Mayor Raeanne Danielowski admits the city has been “too soft in the past” in regards to the delinquencies and says things are not getting better as far as people paying their obligations.
“We tried a collection agency to help deal with the delinquents these past few years, but that process hasn’t yielded the results we’ve been looking for,” she said. “It’s gotten a little out of hand and has become a concern for the city and we think we need to take the issue to the next level.”
The city has a policy in place that does not allow them to shut a homeowner’s water off during the winter months, especially if the water is in connection to the home’s heating system. Come spring, the city will give the delinquents a brief time period to bring their account current before instituting the water shut off.
The city appeared to lose management of the monitoring and issuing of delinquencies due to staff cuts and personnel transition over the last five years. Finance Director Jessica Green‚ who has only been on the job fulltime for a few months, says the city needed to establish a new system and may be obliged to make a hire to keep that system in check.
“We need a new process and we may have to hire someone to manage the shut-offs since they are so time inducive,” she said. 
Green said she has worked diligently to reconcile issues with billing since she took over the job in May of this year. She succeeded Paula Mastey, who took over the duties when the city decided to outsource the utility billing following the resignation of Corey Boyer in 2010.
Water rates in Big Lake are billed by means of a three-tiered system. For residential, users who expend 0-15,000 gallons a month are charged at $3.20 per 1,000 gallons. Users in the 15,000 to 30,000 range are charged $4 per 1,000 gallons and users over 30,000 gallons a month are charged $6 per 1,000 gallons. Commercial rates are $3.19 per 1,000 gallons monthly (no minimum) or at $18.00 per month fixed.
Delinquent property owners have until Nov. 15 at 5 p.m. to bring their accounts current and avoid certification to the county. A public hearing is scheduled to be held Nov. 13.

photos


Darlene "Dar" Trovall

BIG LAKE FIRE CHIEF Paul Nemes and Big Lake Chief of Police Joel Scharf address the chamber membership at their monthly lunch meeting Tuesday at Saron Lutheran Church. (Photo by Jennifer Edwards).

DANCING TO THE MUSIC IN THE PARK has been a popular summer pastime for the young and the young at heart in Big Lake all summer long, thanks to the efforts of the Big Lake Legacy Foundation. (Photo by Jennifer Edwards).

NIGHT TO UNITE COLORING CONTEST WINNERS are Tayden Zimmerman, Alexis Roehlke and Tyler Huver. Chief Joel Scharf presented the artists with their prizes Tuesday. (Photo by Jennifer Edwards).