Lawrence households still collectively owe nearly $1.3M in back utility bills; more assistance possible

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

City of Lawrence utility bill

Despite a utility assistance program, past-due utility bills continue to pile up for Lawrence residents. As of this month, 3,570 Lawrence households still have utility payments that are more than three weeks past due, amounting to $1.28 million in delinquencies.

The city provides water, solid waste and sewer services, and during the City Commission’s meeting Tuesday, Finance Director Jeremy Willmoth told the commission that a utility assistance program funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, was under utilized, and that the average month-end delinquent balance per household has continued to grow since March.

“Charting the month-end (delinquent) balance for the fiscal year of 2020, you can see we started out the year — January, February, March — in a normal, if you will, zone, and then since then we’ve exponentially grown month over month,” said Willmoth. He noted that of the 3,570 households owing back utility bills, more than 1,500 customers have bills that are more than three months past due.

In the fall, the city was awarded $500,000 from the CARES Act for an assistance program to help utility customers with economic hardship due to COVID-19. The city partnered with various local social service agencies to administer the program, which provided money to help residents cover utility bills incurred between March 1 and Dec. 10, and began accepting applications on Nov. 1, according to a past city staff memo. Applicants had to provide proof or certification of not being able to pay utilities due to a loss/reduction of income due to the economic impact of COVID-19 as well as proof of economic need.

Willmoth said that by the middle of November, the program had only issued $150,000 of the funding, so Douglas County reallocated $300,000 of the money. In early December, the Douglas County Commission reallocated about $650,000 of unspent funds in its CARES Act spending plan to make sure outstanding federal pandemic relief money was spent before an end-of-the-year deadline, though that deadline was later extended until the end of February, as the Journal-World reported.

The utility assistance program accepted applications until Dec. 15, according to the utility report, and Willmoth said the program had issued the entire $200,000 it was left with by the end of December. He said he was told applications dwindled off toward the end, so there were not a lot of people who applied for money and were turned away.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen asked whether there was any indication that there could be additional coronavirus relief funding to help the city with the past-due utility balances. Willmoth said that the recently approved coronavirus relief funding allocated aid to each state, and the states would decide how those dollars would be distributed. He said once the allocation process is known, the city would apply for additional funds, if it is eligible, and if not would direct residents to apply individually for assistance if available.

Mayor Brad Finkeldei said that the application process may have been a barrier for some, and that other programs funded through the CARES Act also did not spend all the money allocated to them. He said the city would have to see how the next round of funding goes and consider the distribution method.

“People are just resistant to apply and ask, as opposed to programs where money goes directly to pay off past-due bills,” Finkeldei said.

Because of the pandemic, the city has not been charging late fees or disconnecting service for nonpayment since March. Willmoth said that prior to the pandemic, households with balances more than 91 days past due were put on a shut-off list and service was only restored once payment was received. The city breaks delinquent accounts into categories based on how late the bill is, and he said the number of significantly past-due bills has continued to grow.

“During COVID we’ve stopped that (shut-off) process, and as you can see that 90-plus day delinquency has continued to grow every month,” Willmoth said.

Apart from potential federal funding, the city is in the process of setting up a voluntary utility donation program to help low-income residents pay their city utility bill. Utility Billing Manager Kristen Webb recently told the Journal-World that city staff is working on a contract with Catholic Charities to administer that program, and staff hopes to have the program set up so utility customers can sign up to make donations sometime in March.

The city has not set a date for when late fees or shutoffs will resume.

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